What does it mean to train “a woman’s style” of kung fu? How is a woman’s style — that is, a style specifically developed by a woman — distinct from one developed by a man?
Normally, when people think of kung fu, they think about things like attacking an enemy, taking someone down, aggression, anger, strength, grr! They may think of MMA fighters (don’t get me started). They may think that martial arts, then, are not for women. Women are not as aggressive as men, so how is any particular kung fu style in any way meant for us? And in these times of great upheaval, when women everywhere are speaking up against male violence and misogyny (again), how can kung fu help us?
The most obvious answer, one anyone could think of, is: self-defence, duh… Well, it’s a bit more than that. Of course self-defence is a major aspect of kung fu. We want to evade an attacker, maybe disarm them so they can’t hurt us. But a martial artist who lives with integrity and honour — two things we take very seriously at Tiger Crane Kung Fu — would always prefer to win a fight without anyone having to get hurt.
As Sunzi (Sun Tzu) says in The Art of War:
Ultimate excellence lies
Not in winning
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting
And that’s the essence of Crane style. We at Tiger Crane Kung Fu practise an entire system, rather than what’s generally called a “style.” I’ll explain what that means presently, but first let me tell you what makes Crane special.
Crane is a Southern style, the last of the Five Ancestor styles that came out of the Shaolin Temple. Being the last (after Damo, Lohan, Taiju and Monkey), it was also the most fully developed, incorporating aspects of the other styles and adapting them to Crane. Whereas Northern styles are famous for their kicks, Southern styles, including the entire Crane system, focus more on evasion and pressure point strikes. A Crane stylist will nonetheless have a solid stance, a strong core, insanely strong legs and will be very difficult (if not impossible) to budge if you’re trying to push them over. There they’ll stand, rooted, stubbornly refusing to be toppled, no matter how hard you shove. And then they’ll strike, taking you completely by surprise.
Tiger Crane kung fu incorporates aspects of both the Crane and the Tiger, so we have the elegance and grace of the Crane coupled with the strength and ferocity of the Tiger. Pretty cool, huh?
So, as this is a woman’s style, there should, theoretically at least, be no moves a man can do better than a woman. White Crane kung fu, having been developed by a woman, Fang Qi Niang, in the middle of the 17th century, gives women an advantage when it comes to some of the intricacies of many of the moves. For once, it’s men who have to adapt. Men, who are often rather too muscly in the upper-arm department, tend to find the placing of the elbows more of a challenge than women, who understand more instinctively that the placement of the elbows in front of our chest means our breasts are protected. (Men have to either practise with a couple of oranges, or imagine what it’s like to have breasts. See what I mean? Women are at a distinct advantage, here.) That elbow placement is hard, the V-shape difficult to both achieve and maintain, but once it becomes clear why we do it that way, it’s easier to make yourself go through the hardship to do it correctly (at least it is if you’re a woman — because we all want to protect our boobs, right?). It’s hard to do, but it’s not as hard for a woman, on the whole, as it is for a man, in terms of both motivation and physical ability.
By the same token, women don’t have the arm strength that men have, so we can’t use our arms in the same way. To compensate, we make sure we have a strong core. This is where most of our natural strength, as women, lies, and so Crane style kung fu puts a lot of focus on that to make sure our blocks and strikes are powerful enough to be effective. It also means that correct structure, rather than muscle strength, is how we protect ourselves — when we “whip to structure”, we are blocking a punch, striking, or releasing a grip, in the most efficient and effective way for a woman. Male practitioners have to resist the urge to use muscle strength, because although it’s obviously effective in a fight, that’s not what this system is about. Too much muscle strength and the moves look clunky and clockwork. This is kung fu that could only ever have been developed by a woman, because so many of the moves are very subtle (and necessarily sneaky) and a man simply wouldn’t think the same way. There are things a man would never consider, because men don’t have to keep themselves safe every day the way we do. Women have to move differently to men, and Crane kung fu uses what we have naturally to our advantage.
Before I go on, I should explain the difference between a style and a system.
A whole system
When you tell someone you practise a martial art, the person you’re telling may ask several questions. One of the most common, and often the first, is: What style / discipline do you practise?
And when someone asks me this, I explain that it’s not a style so much as an entire system. A style is one aspect of a system. An example of this would be Hung Gar. This is what we call a hard (or external) style of kung fu. But tai chi is also a martial art, and is what’s known as a soft (or internal) style. It’s far more subtle than hard styles but certainly no less deadly.
At Tiger Crane Kung Fu, we not only combine aspects of both Tiger and Crane (to get moves which are at once elegant and devastating), we also train our own version of tai chi, one of the rarest forms, called Shuang Yang. On top of this, some of our hard style patterns (forms) are qigong patterns, incorporating breathing practice into a series of movements, which we do in order to encourage the circulation of qi (or chi, breath, life force) around the body.
We train everything towards optimum health, fitness, efficiency and effectiveness. One of the most common martial arts patterns (known as kata in Japanese arts) is San Zhan (and variations thereof, depending on the language or dialect used). Literally translated as “Three Battles” or “Three Wars”, the battles we’re fighting when we train are against body, mind and spirit. We start with the body, because even though it’s difficult, it’s the easiest of the three to control. Next we move onto our mind — which is constantly telling us, “That hurts” or “I can’t” or any other negative messages which we have to learn to ignore. That’s a much harder battle to fight. Then, when we’re well into our training, decades down the line, we might — might — start to get a grip on our spirit.
This is what we mean by “a whole system.”
So who was Fang Qi Niang?
Fang Qi Niang was the daughter of a Shaolin master in mid-17th century Fujian province, in southern China. When her father was killed, she vowed to avenge him. What little we know of her is shrouded in legend and conjecture — the story of Crane tells how she was sweeping the temple yard one day and one of these birds landed near her, and no matter how many times she tried to shoo it away, the crane evaded her attempts. Eventually boring of the game, it flapped its wings, breaking her broomstick in two, and flew off. The story goes on to tell how she was inspired by this encounter to develop a new style of kung fu, better suited to women, White Crane, which she used on all the (male) kung fu masters who decided they wanted to take her on. Such was her reputation that some of these masters travelled from far and wide to challenge her, and one has to assume that this was partly an attempt to discredit her abilities because she was a woman. She beat them all. One even later died of the injuries she inflicted. As far as we know, the man she married was a student of this master she killed, and she taught him her new Crane kung fu. In such a patriarchal society as China was at the time (and feminists everywhere will be nodding their heads to this, as all societies everywhere are still patriarchal), her achievements were immense, and the fact her husband followed her and allowed her to shine is testament to her abilities (and his character) at a time when women often were not even given names. (They were First Daughter, Second Sister, etc. Because why bother naming a baby girl if she’s eventually going to be married out anyway?)
A statue of Fang Qi Niang stands to this day in a temple close to Yong Chun village and she is highly revered by Crane stylists. When most historical heroes are currently still men, it makes a change for us ladies to have a woman to look up to.
So with all this mind…
I’m a small woman — 5’ 3” at a stretch. Although this is not excessively short for a female person (my mum is 4’ 10”), I also have tiny feet (between sizes 36 and 37) and hands that are smaller than you’re picturing in your head now. (I can almost guarantee this last — I have a really hard time finding rings that don’t slip straight off my fingers.) I have a small frame to match, and with all this combined, I’m not exactly the type of woman a man might hesitate to take on if he felt so inclined.
Although I initially began training in order to improve my disastrous fitness level (let’s just gloss over that, shall we?), it’s everything else that’s kept me going back for more.
The knowledge that brute strength is not only not an advantage but can actually be a hindrance makes me feel a bit smug (though I do tend to forget about that when I’m sparring with a man who’s twice my size — it’s not easy to get out of panic mode even with someone I trust, but it can be done with practice and determination). But sparring with guys who are not only bigger and taller but more confident than I am forces me to up my game.
One evening when a few of us were talking after class, we were discussing each other’s strengths and how we’re not always (or in the case of women, very rarely) aware of what our own strengths are. One of my kung fu brothers, an assistant instructor, told me straight that one of my strengths is my tenacity. Even though he’s much bigger and stronger than me, and can get in more punches than I can while sparring, I move immediately back into his space and give it my best shot. (You might want to picture an angry Jack-in-the-box right now.) Sometimes, I even manage to hit him. (My favourite place to punch someone — especially a man, let’s be honest, here — is right in the face, and I’m not sure what this says about me, but there you are. It is what it is.) When he said that about me being tenacious, it gave me a confidence boost, not because I felt flattered, but because I knew instinctively that he was right. I may not be the strongest physically, but come at me and I’ll give as good as I get, even if it’s not very elegant and even if it means I come away bruised. (Part of the thinking process, in my case — and I’m very aware of this — is “How dare you hit me?” And then I’ll throw a punch that’s invariably harder than my previous one.)
Only a couple of times it’s been too much, and I’ve had to stop for a moment. Those are the times when I don’t have a chance to get any punches in because I’m too busy blocking the ones coming at me. This does go to show that the difference between women and men is still significant, even though Crane was designed specifically for us. Men are — and this will annoy some people, I know, and that’s just tough — bigger, stronger and faster (in some cases, such as running) than we are. (Though women are often much faster in their reaction times when sparring against men, and the men don’t see the strikes coming. This is likely to be due to an instinctive sense of self-preservation on women’s part, particularly when faced with a man who’s trying to hit them.) Treating women and men equally is fine up to a point, but equal is not necessarily fair, and Tiger Crane kung fu gives women the tools to make it more of a fair fight.
This is why many of the moves are designed as releases. The most common way for a man to attack a woman is to start by grabbing her, so we use structure along with technique to release a tight grip. Many of the movements look innocuous and small, barely noticeable if you don’t know what you’re looking at, but everything in Crane has a purpose beyond looking cool (though it does look cool as well, obviously — bonus points for that).
Which leads me on to…
This is one of the things Crane style is most famous for, and effective deflection means accurate footwork, allowing you to dodge an attack, the idea being that when the punch or kick would otherwise have connected, not only are you not where your attacker thought you would be, you’re somewhere else entirely.
Again, as Sunzi says in The Art of War (if you haven’t read it already, go and read it, and if you have, read it again):
If [your opponent] is angry
If he is weak
Stir him to pride
And if you keep determinedly not being there when a man is trying to hit you, he’s going to become irritated. In Crane kung fu, we use that to our advantage, because when someone is irritated, they’re less likely to think straight, less likely to see a kick, punch or sweep coming, and consequently more likely to move straight into it.
If a woman is attacked, the best thing she can do is get out of the way, and although this is instinctive, it’s not always effective if you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not complicated. Simply leaning back (by tipping the pelvis — and remember a woman’s pelvis lies at a different angle to that of a man) means the punch won’t land. Turning away means the punch may brush past you, but again, it won’t land. One small step to the side and you’re not where your attacker thought you would be. He’ll miss. By an inch, perhaps. But he’ll still miss. And that’s what you want when you’re trying not to get hurt. You need to learn to do this properly because in a real-life situation, you don’t want panic getting in the way. This is where an excellent instructor comes in, one who can tell you what you need to do and how best to execute it.
But deflection also has another meaning, and this ties in with Crane being known as a Scholars’ Style, because it’s one of the hardest martial disciplines to learn. While sparring, one of the things we practise is how to manipulate our partner. We make a move, they think they can see what we’re about to do, they react to that and then we do something else (which in my case, you’ll be ever-so surprised to know, usually means they get punched in the face). And this is irritating… which is precisely what Sunzi says you should do:
The art of war is a way of deception
When deploying troops
Appear not to be
Lure with bait
Strike with chaos
It’s not comfortable to spar, but it is definitely a buzz and an adrenaline rush, and knowing you won’t back down when someone tries to hit you gives you an enormous boost of confidence that you’ll be able to handle yourself in a difficult situation, because…
Women are physically disadvantaged in normal, everyday life
A lot of women these days don’t like to acknowledge this. Modern feminism is based on equality — equality of opportunity (even if this doesn’t lead to equality of outcome); equality of value; and equality in the sense that there’s nothing a man can do that a woman can’t. This last, however, simply isn’t true. (We can say it’s a matter of opinion, but although some women are stronger or faster than the average man, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.) But the feminism I ascribe to (sometimes called radical feminism, but which I like to call simply “feminism”) acknowledges that women are smaller, on average, than men; we are less strong, physically; we cannot run as fast as men.(Or even boys.) This is not to say we’re weak, which seems to be how a lot of people, both women and men, take statements like these. I understand the reluctance. Of course I do. But these statements are not saying women are weak. They’re saying women are not as large, fast or strong as men, and this is a simple fact. Even a relatively small man is going to be at a physical advantage in a fight against a woman. I’m sorry to break it to you, ladies, but that’s just the way it is.
But that’s not to say there’s nothing we can do about it. Crane kung fu gives women the tools to redress the balance a little. The focus on a strong core means that, in theory, and with enough training, we are able to take on a man who’s bigger than us and come out relatively unscathed. Personally, I call that a win. Our bodies are different in other ways, too. Our body-fat distribution isn’t the same as men’s (those pesky boobs, again, for one thing), and our pelvis lies at a different angle. Our hips are wider. Our legs are shorter relative to our bodies. And we’ve all been there, when we need to open a jar of peanut butter and the lid just will not budge, and when we ask a man to do it, off it comes, and he might look at us as if to say, “Honestly, I don’t know what the problem was.” But the problem is a huge difference in hand-grip strength between women and men: in one study of mean maximal hand-grip strength, “90% of females produced less force than 95% of males.” I’ll let that sink in for a moment, shall I?
So what am I getting out of this?
My own story is not unusual, but here it is briefly. I was a skinny kid. Not just thin — painfully so. Nothing I was doing was making it that way. I never had a problem with eating, I didn’t have to watch my weight — ever — but I wished I weren’t quite so thin when I was at school, because of course that was what the other kids picked up on and they used it against me from the start. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say I can’t even think the words “skeleton key” without being reminded of a particular day in secondary school, and that one hurt almost more than the time a girl who never did like me pushed me over in the woodwork room (saying, “Hi!” to sound oh-so-friendly and shoving my shoulder, which made me slip backwards on the sawdust — the thought of her expression when I turned up the next day with my arm in plaster is a source of mild joy to me to this day).
Now you have a picture of what I was like when I was young, and why the idea of me ever doing something as bad-ass as kung fu was ridiculous — especially to me.
What eventually got me started, in my early 30s, was a desire for fitness, as I mentioned above. My weight was about right for my height, but I was unfit and I knew the only thing that would keep my interest for long enough to make a difference would be kung fu. It had to be a Chinese art, specifically — I’ve always been something of a sinophile — and that was when I found Dave, as his club was the nearest to where I was living at the time. Lucky for me, I say. I’ve never looked back.
And I believe I’ve proved to be something of a challenge for Dave. My posture when I began training, he once told me, was the worst he’d seen in all his years of teaching. I hadn’t realised it was so bad, but as time passed, I began to notice small differences, and one day I came across a photo of me standing by the River Ness, and I looked… well, let’s just say I was all angles, and they weren’t the right ones. I certainly was not standing straight.
But I not only couldn’t feel that before, I hadn’t been able to see it, either, not even when it was staring me in the face, like it was in that photo. The fact of it is, the longer you train, the better you get and the more you (quite literally) see. And what I saw in that photo horrified me.
Over time, my posture has improved dramatically. I still have some way to go, but the difference is extraordinary, and with changes in posture have come changes in my physical abilities, and an enormous surge in confidence. I’ve had a tendency to not give myself enough credit for this, and say that it’s been Dave’s patience and teaching ability that have got me where I am. But on reflection, I know myself well enough to realise that nothing he could have said — nothing anyone could have said — could ever have made me do something if I didn’t want to do it. Call it determination, call it stubbornness, or call it (as I do, considering it’s a family trait) bloody-mindedness — if I don’t want to do something, I’ll either do it in a half-baked way or I won’t do it at all.
So for once in my life, I’m going to own it:
Dave has guided me, steered me in the right direction, and told me what I needed to do to make things happen.
And I’ve made them happen. I’ve done this for myself.
Changes don’t happen overnight. It feels sometimes as though whatever I do, nothing will ever change what I’m trying to fix and I have a hard time convincing myself that doing what I know I need to do will make the slightest difference anyway. At times like that, it’s really hard to motivate myself, and these periods may last weeks or months or even — I’m going to say it — years. But then one day, I notice I’m not in pain any more, or I feel like that crane block would actually block a punch, or Dave might mention this or that has improved even though I hadn’t noticed it myself. And I know that it’s quite hard to teach me some things and very easy to teach me other things, and physical training of any kind, including kung fu, is one of the former. Part of that is because kung fu is hard, by its very definition. But another part of it, I strongly suspect, goes way back to my childhood, when I was one of the least athletic kids, and I’d have preferred to do almost anything rather than PE at school. And I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that even that loathing of PE wasn’t really a loathing of being active — I got out on my bike and went walking frequently (as a family, we often cycled to the local nature reserve, left the bikes at the bottom, walked up, round and back and then cycled home again) — but a complete lack of interest in games. (I was also afraid of falling off the beam, falling off the climbing apparatus, getting whacked in the shins with a hockey stick, etc… I never did, but I always feared I would.) And these things carry over into adulthood. But as I said before, I’ve always been a sinophile, even as a child, and kung fu has not only given me the keys to self-improvement, it’s also given me the perfect excuse to find out more about Chinese culture, about which it’s quite hard to shut me up (as many people have discovered to their cost).
A feminist analysis
Part of my inability to notice improvements as they happen (though this tendency in me is changing) is perhaps down to what is known in feminist circles as “female socialisation.” As women, we’re not meant to see the good in ourselves. We’re meant to praise others, but we’re not good enough, and never will be. It starts when we’re young and we don’t notice it happening. But the messages are all there. “Be pretty. Be kind. Be thin. Be sexy. Be a good cook. Be a nice, compliant wife.” Don’t see it? That’s because many of these messages are subliminal. (And if you’re a man, you’re less likely to see it anyway, because the messages are not aimed at you.) We women are not supposed to see the messages for what they are either (because if we did, more of us would rebel against them). But we do absorb them, because we can’t help it.
Kung fu teaches us something different, however. And especially training a woman’s style, the opposite message is reinforced, only more overtly: “This style is for you. You will (or at least you have the potential to) be naturally better at it than any man.” And that’s such an unusual message when you’re a woman that it takes a while to even start believing it.
At one point, Tiger Crane Kung Fu helped me do something I should have done years before. The relationship I was in grew more and more toxic and in the end, I decided I couldn’t take any more.
I ended that relationship.
I hadn’t even known there was a term for what I’d endured for years, because when you’re in it, you can’t see it. It’s called coercive control (and it was made a criminal offence in the UK at the end of 2015 — sadly too late for me). What my ex hadn’t banked on was my personality being stronger than his repeated attempts to suppress it. When someone has low self-esteem, they may try to control the person they’re with in order not to have them find someone better (or whatever the perceived threat is). They may be a narcissist. They may have been abused themselves. It may be all of those things. And forgiveness is such a loaded term that I haven’t been able to get past that bit yet, and I may never. How dare he do that to me? What gave him the right? Who did he think he was? (I think he actually didn’t know, which led him to try to make me forget who I was, too. Ultimately, he failed in that endeavour.)
And so many women have similar stories that mine is in no way unusual.
It’s taken a long time and I still have some work to do, as my ex’s sustained effort to control me left me with a sense of insecurity which I’m only now beginning to shed, a decade later. Had it not been for my training, I’m not sure I’d have managed yet to get this far. And I strongly suspect the knowledge that Crane kung fu is a woman’s style has had a huge influence on my healing.
From hyper-aware to a state of peace
Women everywhere know the feeling of hyper-awareness. We’re out alone at night, and we keep our wits about us, because we have to. Anyone, but mostly any male person, poses a potential threat to our safety and even our lives. That hyper-awareness (which may sometimes tip over into hyper-vigilance, depending on an individual woman’s previous experience — sustained abuse can lead to conditions such as CPTSD), means we are zeroing in on that sense of threat. This is our sixth sense. It’s not necessarily anything we can see, smell, feel (physically), hear or taste, but there’s maybe a sense of foreboding, the source of which we can’t quite put our finger on, but we know what it could mean, so we go with that to be on the safe side. That sense of foreboding may not even be there at all, but we’re hyper-aware anyway, just in case. This is women trusting our instincts, and we do it without thinking, every single day.
But while we’re focusing on one of our senses, we’re less aware of things the other five may be picking up on. Kung fu trains us to detach from our senses so that our minds are calm and we’re ready for anything.
OK, what does that mean in practice? It makes zero sense, right? So. Think of a cat, stalking a mouse or a vole in the grass. The cat shifts, wriggles her backside, her eyes are alert and open and she doesn’t move a muscle until POW! She shoots forward and attacks, and the poor mouse doesn’t know what’s hit it. This is what we’re after, too. The ability to move without even a moment’s hesitation, to be away from the danger or to move to where we’re best placed to strike. But it isn’t easy. No matter how fast we may think we are, taking up half a second to load our legs and move could be the end of us. That half second could be the difference between life and death.
Kung fu helps our bodies adapt to the feeling of readiness, of being prepared to move in whichever direction is necessary for us to avert danger, to get out of the way, to avoid being punched, or worse. A person who’s decided to attack us is not going to give us even a moment’s grace, so we have to be ready for whatever comes.
This is where the strong Crane legs come in, because we can’t move at the speed of thought without the requisite strength. So — we train. We have a low stance, and however painful it is (and it really is), we have to force ourselves to go through it, because one day, our lives may literally depend on it. It’s this knowledge that makes us endure the pain, because the sort of pain we can control (and which we know will eventually end) is far preferable to the alternative.
Training this way, with the pain that comes with it, also teaches us to empty our minds, because if we have something to ignore, we can cultivate an internal sense of peace, which means we’re naturally aware. We’re not focusing on one thing. Like the cat stalking the mouse, our minds are empty and we embody awareness.
And this skill, as much as any of the physical skills we learn, may end up being the one that ultimately saves our lives.
The bonus, of course, is the other result of all that strength training — those insanely strong legs I mentioned earlier.
So to finish up…
A woman training Crane kung fu is going to have a different perspective to a man training the same style, because it was developed by a woman, with women’s physiology (as well as all the inherent dangers of being female in a world run by men) in mind. It plays to our strengths, turning our physical disadvantages into advantages. We use what we have, as women. This also gives us another advantage: if any man does decide to attack us, he’s going to be confident that he’ll easily overpower us. He’ll quite likely be bigger than us. Tiger Crane gives women the skills to take that confidence and flip it on its head. The element of surprise is as powerful a weapon as any, so long as we have the skills to back it up.
Kung fu is helping me rediscover the woman I was always meant to be. She still hides sometimes, and I have to coax that woman out of her shell. When she comes out for a peek, she can see that it’s all right and she’s safe, and at last, she’s starting to believe that she could be a force to be reckoned with, that any man would be a fool to take on.
Fang Qi Niang did it. Why can’t I?
 The Art of War, Sun Tzu, chapter 3, Strategic Offensive, translated by John Mitford, Penguin, 2002
 Ming Dynasty, 1368—1644
 For example: a mixed-sex group goes on a hiking trip. Everyone is required to carry a 30 kilo pack on their backs. This is treating everyone equally, but it’s not fair to expect those with a smaller frame, i.e. women and children, to carry the same as the men.
 The Art of War, Sun Tzu, chapter 1, Making of Plans, translated by John Mitford, Penguin, 2002
 The Art of War, Sun Tzu, chapter 1, Making of Plans, translated by John Mitford, Penguin, 2002