Staff: The Mother of All Weapons by Shifu Guolin
Anyone who has seen the movie "Shaolin Temple" must be very impressed by the Shaolin staff techniques of the thirteen staff wielding monks' hurricane-like whirling motions with overwhelming forces that could wipe out a battalion of soldiers. Staff is the oldest traditional equipment of the Shaolin martial arts, and is also the most representative one. According to Shaolin's Journal of Staffs,Shaolin staff system originated during the dynasty of Norther Wei. Some monks brought this skill with them into Shaolin Temple around the time when Shaolin Temple was founded. After finishing their Buddhist services, they would usually take time off to practice staff. The reason why some monks brought this skill into the Shaolin Temple was because during that time staffs were not yet important weapons in battlefields, and since staff have no sharp edges, they are not weapons for killing. Thus, they were more suitable for monks who joined the monastery with compassion in their heart but who needed equipment to exercise in order to strengthen their bodies to lead healthier lives.
As history continued to develop, Shaolin martial arts were no longer limited to staffs as the only equipment. With monks in successive dynasties absorbing the specialties of other branches of martial arts, together with continual enhancement of the content of Shaolin martial arts, staff techniques gradually evolved into a unique branch of martial arts.
There is a wealthy collection of staff forms in Shaolin martial arts. In over a thousand years time, the major staff forms created and organized by monks in different dynasties consist of Mountain Breaking Staff, Eyebrow Level Staff, Negative Hand Staff, Six Unity Staff, Plum Blossom Staff, Wind and Fire Staff, Burning Fire Staff, Pack of Five Tigers Staff, Yaksha Staff, Mountain Guarding Staff, Crazy Staff, Meteor Staff, Monkey Staff, Drunken Staff, up to a grand total of more than eighty forms. They can also be classified according to participation, such as single practice, two person matching practice, multiple person matching practice, and group practice. Group practice forms include: Crazy Staff Matching Form, Big Yaksha Staff Matching Form, Three Person Staff Matching Form or Eighteen Lohan formation Staff Form etc.
There are many kinds of staffs. In general they can be classified into the following categories: Big Staff, Eyebrow Level Staff, Head Level Staff, Three-Section Staff, Terminal Staff and Portable Terminal Staff.
Big Staff is approximately eight feet long. Manipulating it requires tremendous waist and leg energy and arm strength. In practical fighting you can frequently make use of its length and size to attack your opponent from a distance. When stood upright on the ground, an Eyebrow Level Staff or a Head Level Staff should reach up to your eyebrow or head level respectively. When you manipulate it, you can make lively and changing movements like big hops, big jumps, snatches, strikes, sweeps, swings etc. The whirling wind sound of the staff has a very fierce bearing that is both convenient in defensive blocking and useful in close attacks. Three-Section Staff consists of the three sections of short staffs that are interconnected by steel rings. The total length of the three sections should be equal to a person's height. It is convenient to carry and when activated can be either long or short, extended or contracted, with many nimble variations. To use it, you can either hold the two terminal sections separately with two hands, or hold one terminal section with one hand and hold the middle section with the other hand, or just hold the staff with a single hand. The major motions consist of snatching, sweeping, striking, barricading or blocking. Terminal Staff consist of a long staff and a short staff connected in the middle by steel rings. During performance and practice, the major motions of snatching, striking, entwining, whirling and lifting are combined with rhythmic steps to create forms.
Although there is a great number of Shaolin staff forms with many variations, in terms of techniques, they don't go beyond the skills of striking, cracking, snatching, blocking, entangling, encircling, twisting, pointing, swinging, lifting, stirring, poking, pounding, piercing, blockading, rolling and finessing. They still have common requirements in practice. For example, in practicing staff, you need to have arms with circular dexterity, hand synchronized with feet, body rotating with steps, body unified with staff, force that travels up to the staff tip, fierce and fast maneuvers with forceful momentum, coordinations of eye and hands and steps and body motions. When your hands holding a staff can open, close and swing freely, you will be able to express the special characteristics of 'staff effective at both ends', 'staff covering a wide area' etc.
Not only do staff forms occupy important positions in Shaolin Temple martial arts, they also occupy important positions in other branches of Chinese martial arts. As the Ming Dynasty staff master Ji-Gurang Chi once said, 'If you know how to use staff, then you should have no problem with other sharp weapons.' Many other experienced martial artists also express this opinion: 'To learn martial arts, you first learn how to use your fists, then you learn how to use a staff. When both fit forms and staff forms are clear to you, then the techniques of broad sword and spear will be clear to you. That is why fist forms and staff forms are the foundations for all sharp weapons.