Crane Stance, No Can Defend

Hakutsuru, the secret crane kata. Hidden knowledge, supposedly reserved for the highest level students of the Okinawan arts. Rare, deep, powerful. And yet, for all its vaunted rarity there is a plethora of “crane” in Okinawa. Seems every dojo or group has their “secret” crane form. I’ve seen dozens. Really. The forms have names like hakutsuru, kakuho, kakufa, hakkaku, paiho, hakucho, and so on, all essentially meaning “white crane” or “crane method”. Many seem to lead back to Gokenki, most likely a Ming He (Singing or Calling Crane) practitioner. (I recently wrote a little about him here.) Others are of less clear provenance. But really, it doesn’t matter. Why not? Because there is no crane taught in Okinawa. Yes, there are “crane” forms in Okinawa, but none are any different in how they are performed than the rest of the systems they are part of and none of those systems are crane.

Seems like a pretty strong position, given the status the “white crane” seems to hold in the Okinawan traditions. Especially in those systems like Goju or Uechi that claim a direct lineal connection to crane systems this connection takes on a power that is disproportionate to its historical weight;  having a connection to “Chinese” roots can be a powerful piece of both social capital and historical validity in Okinawa. But there it is. Really. Regardless of the stories told, there is no crane taught in Okinawan karate. Perhaps I should explain why this is true. The answer is pretty simple. Energy and power.

Fujian’s White Crane systems use particular types of power generation and specific body energies. That sound esoteric but it isn’t, it just means they train one to move and hit in certain ways. Two of the most common of these are whipping and shaking. They are not present in Okinawan karate. Both of these in general require elements of movement that break fundamental karate rules. To whip you have to move your arms in curves, not lines, extend 100%, no holding back that little bit at the elbow, and drop all power at impact, so no kime. To shake you often have to lift your elbows instead of protecting your ribs, again use 100% extension, and you cannot chamber or “lock in” with kime. There are plenty of other mechanical reasons, those are just examples. There are also technical and strategic examples, as well as postural and movement examples, as well as training method examples, but this is enough for now.  There are similar terms used- some Shorin schools “whip”, for example- but it is not whipping in the Crane sense.


Crane Stance, No Can Defend

The point is (with the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, a discussion for a different post) I have yet to see an Okinawan crane form being done with crane energy. Without the energy it is simply not crane. I think one real issue here is a basic misunderstanding of the place of kata, form. The reason the Okinawan crane forms are called crane is because they conform to certain ideas about what crane is. They look “crane like” with the open “wings” posture and finger tip and wrist techniques. Perhaps they are done “softer”, and usually contain one-legged “crane stances”. But the issue, at least from a crane practitioner’s perspective, is that these things have little to nothing to do with crane. Crane is about the power generation and strategy. The techniques in the forms are based on that, the crane is not based in the techniques. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters how it is done.

So no crane. Okinawan karate with crane names, but not crane. To be clear, this isn’t bad. That would be like saying a Ferrari is bad compared to a Lamborghini. Both are pretty nice cars. They are just not the same car. Using Ferrari parts to repair your Lamborghini would not work well. Using karate energy to do crane technique works equally well. And vice versa. Thinking about The Secrets In Kata in this light, I think most of the “crane” forms in Okinawa are rather disappointing, at least if you are expecting special secret knowledge that will make you a more powerful martial artist. They don’t hold anything more than the karate systems they are a part of. They don’t really seem to add much. Except some cool factor, I guess. (Never underestimate cool factor…)

Of course that doesn’t take away from these systems! I love my Goju. It is a powerful and effective art. To return to the car analogy, I would be pretty happy driving a Lamborghini, and someone else driving a Ferrari doesn’t take away from how nice my car is, it just tells me there are other nice cars on the road. Okinawan karate has its own fundamentals, methods of power generation and movement, things that make it unique (in all its variation). Crane isn’t karate either! One is not better. But unfortunately that is part of the secret “crane”, the idea that it is somehow better. (An ancient Chinese secret.) Turns out this is an idea that is hard to defend, particularly when that crane is the same karate in a slightly different shape.



This is a saying from Ming He, Singing Crane. It roughly translates as: if it doesn’t shake/whip, it’s not Crane. It refers to the way Singing Crane (and, in my experience, Feeding Crane, albeit slightly differently) generates power, through variations on a shaking or whipping energy that is both highly distinctive and quite effective. The saying means that regardless of any other elements of practice, if you are not using this shaking/whipping you are not doing crane.

White Crane Leaves the Nest

It has been a while since I posted, in part because after sifu Liu’s visit I had a bit to catch up on, both at home and at work. The visit was, as always, great fun. We trained daily, either in the dojo or in my home. We shared some nice meals, spent a day up in Maine (and enjoyed a fresh Maine lobster) and spent some time with friends in the area. The weekend seminar was excellent, and we had the usual mix of folks from all over- New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, and so on. Great to see a bunch of familiar faces and to meet a few new people. Also excellent for our group to have a couple of new folks start training regularly with us here. Welcome!

One thing that occurred to me while sifu was here was how quickly time flies. Both in training- the weekend seminar felt like it was over in a flash- and between visits. It does not seem possible it has been a year since he was last here! Part of that is good- it is nice to be able to pick up where you left off the last time you met. And part of that is a little startling- it seems hard to find the time between visits for the practice and investigation needed to really make the training time as useful as it can be, to get the most out of our limited time training together.

A growing student, already asking about learning Thunder Power!

A growing student, already asking about learning Thunder Power!

You see the thing is that with my sifu so far away I do not get the benefit of daily or weekly correction and advice. Instead my development is on me. I have to work to understand the lessons imparted, and figure out how to work towards the goals I have on my own. I have to understand the principals of the art and self-correct. If I don’t do that I don’t progress, and I do not have the excuse of “sifu is not guiding me well” to fall back on.

I like this, to be honest. It is like that if your teacher is right there as well, just harder sometimes to see. But your growth is always up to you. This fits in well with sifu Liu’s approach. As he phrased it one day of the seminar: “if no one asks questions, I know no one has been thinking. They might become good students some day, but if they are not asking me questions and questioning the system then they will never really understand it”. You have to investigate yourself, not rely on others.

Of course I look forward to correction and instruction. This time around we got some good private training in, and I was introduced to some more elements of the system, ones I found very interesting. But I kept returning to this concept of time. Mostly because I feel I need to be using my time well, growing between ourr visits so I have the chance to take in whatever new material is presented. Not training the same year over and over but doing a new one each time.

One of my students asked sifu about what he should be doing to train on his own. Sifu was kind of flummoxed by the question. When pressed he went through the important elements of fundamental practice, and some personal training methods for solo training he has developed, but what he said stuck with me: “You have to understand what you need. Then work on that. I can tell you today but what about next month? That is your job. You have to use your time well, and only you know if you are doing that.”

      白鶴出巣拳  White Crane Leaves the Nest

This idea kept coming up over his vist- that you need to focus and develop yourself. That you need to question. One of the things sifu and I worked on were forms outside the introductory set. While there is a list, he was clear that there is no standard order for learning them. The teacher decides what the student needs to keep growing. He was joking around some, but he looked down the list and after some translation back and forth decided we would spend some time on White Crane Leaves the Nest. “It is just what we were talking about”, he joked. And while he was clear to let me know the techniques were just part of the core of the system, and I know I have not received any “secret knowledge”, I found the symbolism both entertaining and something to take with me till our next visit. Hopefully I will have kept myself on track in the meantime.



Feeding Crane Seminar, June 2014

Sifu Liu Chang’I will be in Boston twice this year. The first time will be in June. We’ll be having a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane Gong’fu June 21st and 22nd, Saturday and Sunday. It will, as always, be a great time! There is more information on the Events page of our site, and the sign up and information sheet is here. Please contact us if you would like any more information. We are looking forward to a fun weekend and hope to see you there!