The Origins of Southern Shaolin Single Plum Blossom Fist

2 Jul, 2023 | Martial Arts

The Story of Yi Zhi Mei

Shaolin Single Plum Blossom Fist, also known as Yi Zhi Mei Quan (一枝梅拳), is one of the excellent martial arts routines practised by all members of the Shaolin National Martial Arts Association in the Republic of Singapore. This fist embodies the true essence of Master Shi Gao Can (釋高參法師), who dedicated himself to benefiting all beings and promoting Shaolin Kung Fu.

Master Shi Gao Can founded the Nanyang Shaolin National Martial Arts Association on 1st Dec 1958

According to the “Quan Pu” (拳譜 Fist Manual) recorded in the birthplace of martial arts, the Shaolin Temple of Song Shan (嵩山) in China, Single Plum Blossom Fist originated from Shaolin Temple during the Jiajing (嘉慶) reign of the Ming Dynasty. At that time, Japanese pirates frequently invaded the southeastern coast of China, and the imperial court repeatedly ordered Shaolin warrior monks to help defend against the invaders. However, some of the monks died or suffered lower limb disabilities during these battles, preventing them from returning to the mountains.

Instead, they built temples and practised meditation on the spot, while also teaching the local disciples and people the art of Shaolin Kung Fu. Due to the lower limb disabilities of the monks, the focus of their teachings shifted to upper limb techniques, with fewer techniques involving the legs. This later gave rise to the saying in the martial arts community of “southern fists and northern legs” (南拳北腿).

In the Qing Dynasty, monks from Shaolin, including the eminent disciples Jingren (淨仁) and Jinglin (淨林), moved south and travelled to places such as Fujian (福建), Guangzhou (廣州), Hainan (海南), Taiwan (台灣), and Nanyue (南越), spreading and deeply imparting the Shaolin martial arts. With the passage of time, the martial arts techniques originally taught by the Shaolin monks from Song Shan were refined and extensively utilised by their southern disciples, gradually forming the southern style of Shaolin fist, which stood out in the martial arts world, gaining fame both domestically and internationally. The Single Plum Blossom Fist in Nanyang (Southeast Asia) belongs to this lineage.

Single Plum Blossom Fist evolved from the Luohan (羅漢) Fist of Shaolin. Its founder, Master Gao Can, learned martial arts diligently from his Shaolin Kung Fu teacher, Cao Biao (曹彪), during his youth. He later became a monk at the Qingxing Temple (清興寺) in Fujian and studied under the guidance of Master Xingliang (行亮). He received ordination from Master Weijia (微嘉) at the Guangxiao Temple (光孝寺) in Putian (蒲田), and then studied authentic Shaolin Kung Fu under the guidance of Master Huijing (慧精) at the Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Nanhai (南海), Zhejiang Province (浙江). In the 12th year of the Guangxu (光緒) reign (1901 AD), after enduring a difficult journey across the ocean, Gao Can arrived in Singapore, Malaysia, and other places to impart his skills. Through numerous rigorous battles, Master Gao Can made multiple improvements to the Single Plum Blossom Fist, making it even more perfect.

Master Shi Gao Can

In 1948, Master Gao Can become the abbot of Shuanglin Monastery (雙林寺) in Singapore, and in 1958, he personally initiated and led the establishment of the Nanyang Shaolin National Martial Arts Association (南洋少林國術總會). He was honoured as the chief instructor and successfully popularised the practice of Single Plum Blossom Fist within the association, with over three thousand practitioners. Due to exhaustion and illness, Master Gao Can’s condition worsened, and he passed away on 16th May 1960. Since then, his numerous capable disciples, who were skilled in the Single Plum Blossom Fist, have continued to carry on his legacy, training diligently and cultivating high moral character. As a result, nearly ten thousand disciples have excelled in martial virtue and extraordinary skills, demonstrating their prowess in international and domestic martial arts competitions and winning numerous medals. They have made a resounding impact in Southeast Asia and gained global recognition.

Characteristics of Yi Zhi Mei

Shaolin Single Plum Blossom Fist originated from Shaolin Temple on Song Shan and has been practised diligently by renowned experts of Southern Shaolin for a long time. It represents the fundamental martial arts routine that every disciple of Southern Shaolin in Nanyang (南洋) must learn. Therefore, the masters and disciples of Single Plum Blossom Fist have made indelible contributions to the development of Shaolin martial arts and the promotion of Shaolin Kung Fu, leaving a glorious chapter in the history of the world of martial arts.

The main characteristics of Single Plum Blossom Fist are the integration of Fist and Zen, depth of essence, solidity and strength, and a balance between firmness and flexibility. It combines both offensive and defensive techniques, emphasising practicality. Its footwork is unique, and the punches are straightforward.

Integration of Fist and Zen, Depth of Essence

In the eighty-seven movements of Single Plum Blossom Fist, from the beginning to the end, there is always a red thread of “sitting in meditation” that runs through the entire routine, often using a horse stance, resembling a monk sitting in meditation. Especially the triangular horse stance, which resembles a monk reading scriptures or striking a ritual instrument. Although there is some movement, it is not extensive. The terminology used in the martial arts routine also often incorporates Buddhist terms such as Arhat, Buddha’s plaque, old monk, and paying respects to the Buddha. From this, it can be seen that Single Plum Blossom Fist combines the movements of the hands and feet with the foundation of Buddhist meditation practices.

The combination of Zen and Fist forms the martial techniques, giving them tangible form and power. One cannot easily overcome an opponent without strength, and strength must be present to overcome the opponent. This is the depth of essence of Single Plum Blossom Fist. The masters and disciples of Single Plum Blossom Fist, through long-term rigorous training, have precise techniques, powerful movements, strict discipline, and compact rhythm. Their techniques are sharp, accurate, and forceful in offence, while impenetrable in defence. Like a solidly built fortress, those who use it skilfully will achieve victory in every battle. This is the result of the skilful use of Qi Gong (氣功) and the essence of the depth of Single Plum Blossom Fist.

Solidity and Strength, Balance of Firmness and Flexibility

Similar to Shaolin Temple on Song Shan, Single Plum Blossom Fist does not focus on fancy postures but emphasises practical combat in every movement. When executing palm strikes and punches, the emphasis is on the explosive force, striking like thunder. The focus is on strength, as strength allows one to overcome opponents. However, within strength, there is also flexibility. For example, when retracting the fist or palm, the wrist rotates internally and externally with a smooth and flexible motion, gentle like a delicate flower and smooth like floating clouds. The combination of flexibility and smoothness enables the retention of sharpness. Sharpness, when refined and swift, emerges from strength, making it even stronger. This is the balance of firmness and flexibility, where each technique and strategy is unified.

Offensive and Defensive, Strong Practicality

Single Plum Blossom Fist not only possesses a characteristic of simultaneous offence and defence in its structure but also adopts a strategy of fierce offence and strict defence in each move. Every strike and technique is aimed at both inflicting significant damage on the opponent and defending against their potential hidden attacks. It can be said that “I cannot hit you, nor can you hit me.” Moves like “Continuous Palm” and “Three-Charging Punch” in the routine exemplify this simultaneous offence and defence. By attacking the opponent’s vital points with a palm or fist while simultaneously guarding the waist or abdomen with another palm or fist, one is prepared to counter any incoming attacks.

Unique Footwork, Strikes Cover All Directions

Single Plum Blossom Fist has distinct features in terms of footwork. The footwork is concise yet refined, capable of adapting and focusing on defence, using defence to lure the enemy and seizing opportunities to strike. The most commonly used footwork in Single Plum Blossom Fist is the horse riding stance, triangular stance, and bow stance, with the horse riding stance being the most frequent. Its advantage lies in the stability it provides, resembling a deeply rooted stake that remains steady even under immense pressure. It prevents one from being pushed over by an enemy or losing balance, ensuring that limbs are not easily captured. Moreover, by maintaining a steadfast appearance, it can deceive the opponent’s assessment of the situation and provide an opportunity to strike.

In terms of its eighty-seven movements, Single Plum Blossom Fist mostly employs punches and strikes to attack opponents, rarely relying on kicks or leg techniques. Whether dealing with attacks from the front or attacks from all directions, the focus is primarily on strikes, chops, hooks, grabs, strikes, sweeps, snatches, smashes, and thrusts. It is said that “Single Plum Blossom Fist strikes in all directions.” In reality, Single Plum Blossom Fist not only strikes in all directions but also launches attacks from all sides. “Regardless of the direction the enemy approaches, I can counter their demonic techniques. Observe, as I appear grounded like a stake, but my movements are fluid like grinding wheels. Facing attacks from all directions, a single punch blocks them all.” This is the true essence of Single Plum Blossom Fist’s ability to strike in all directions.

A History of Master Shi Gao Can

Master Shi Gao Can (1886-1960), born Lin Yahong (林亞鴻), also known as Tianbao (天豹) and nicknamed Feitianbao (飛天豹), was born in 1886 in Hailou Village (海樓鄉), Beimenwai (北門外), Lingtou Town (嶺頭鎮), Huian County (惠安縣), Fujian Province of China. He was the second of four brothers. From a young age, Master Gao Can possess a kind heart and aspired to help others, stand up against the bully and support the vulnerable. He understood that helping others required eliminating evil, and to eliminate evil, one must possess martial arts skills. Thus, at the age of thirteen, he tearfully bid farewell to his parents and sought apprenticeship under Master Cao Biao, a renowned martial artist and top-ranked dart master of Southern Shaolin. He diligently trained in Shaolin Five Ancestors Fist (少林五祖拳) and Luohan Fist (羅漢拳) for three years. In 1916, he returned to his hometown and joined his brothers in Singapore, where they made a living as boatmen.

In 1903, Master Gao Can, saddened by the loss of his elder brother at sea, he then returned to China. He stayed at Qingxing Temple in Fujian and became a monk under the guidance of Master Xingliang, receiving the Dharma name Gao Can. From 1905 to 1941, he embarked on extensive travels, visiting renowned mountains and ancient temples in various countries such as Putian (蒲田), Yishan (怡山), Java Island, Wuyi Mountain (武夷山), Jiu Hua Mountain (九華山), Huangshan (黃山), Emei Mountain (峨眉山), Yunluo Mountain (雲蘿山), Shandong (山東), Zhejiang (浙江), Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Throughout his journeys, he not only forged meaningful friendships but also crossed paths with numerous martial arts experts, thereby deepening his understanding and mastery of Shaolin Kung Fu. Along the way, he also accepted many talented disciples from the monastic community, teaching them martial arts.

Master Gao Can’s photos at Nanyang Shaolin National Martial Arts Association

In 1948, Master Gao Can was appointed as the abbot of Shuanglin Monastery in Singapore. Under challenging circumstances, he undertook the task of renovating the temple, establishing strict rules, imparting martial arts skills, and benefiting all beings. His efforts won the praise of millions of people in Nanyang (Southeast Asia). On 16th May 1954, amidst a jubilant celebration with fireworks, Master Gao Can was enthroned as the abbot. In the same year during the summer months, he founded the Singapore Shao Hua Shan Athletic Association (新加坡少華山國術健身社) and embarked on the journey of promoting Chinese martial arts in Nanyang.

In 1955, Master Gao Can crossed the seas to Malaysia to establish the Penang Shuang Qing Temple (檳城雙慶寺) and Penang Shaolin National Martial Arts Athletic Association (檳城少林國術健身社). His goal was to enhance the unity and cohesion of Shaolin disciples in Nanyang, foster connections among various ethnic groups, and contribute to the physical health of the people and the nation. In 1958, he founded the Nanyang Shaolin National Martial Arts Association (南洋少林國術總會) and served as the chief instructor, imparting authentic Shaolin martial arts to his disciples. His contributions to promoting Shaolin Kung Fu and improving the physical well-being of people in Southeast Asian countries were immense.

Master Gao Can had a keen interest not only in martial arts but also in medical skills, particularly in the field of orthopaedics. Throughout the arduous years, he diligently studied medical texts and applied his knowledge. His medical expertise extended far and wide, benefiting countless individuals and alleviating their illnesses.

“Teaching the Dharma with a magnanimous heart, bringing joy to people’s lives.” This verse served as Master Gao Can’s motto throughout his life. He often lived frugally, using his own funds to purchase medicine and freely offering medical treatment and expertise to the people without seeking fame or fortune. He frequently said, “The suffering of others is my own, and their urgency affects my heart. I worry when they are ill and rejoice in their well-being.” This exemplified his noble moral character and wholehearted dedication to healing and caring for the people of Nanyang.

Master Gao Can possessed extraordinary martial arts skills, profound medical knowledge, and extensive legal studies. His virtuous character earned him the respect of countless individuals.

Despite facing scarcity, hardships, and enduring countless journeys across mountains and rivers, Master Gao Can tirelessly worked for the benefit of all beings. Nevertheless, as a result of his arduous endeavours, he fell ill and, despite undergoing prolonged treatment, passed away on 16 May, 1960. His spirit tablet is enshrined in Shuanglin Monastery, and his memory is honoured by the generations to come. The Nanyang Shaolin National Martial Arts Association displays portraits of Master Gao Can in all its affiliated branches as a sign of respect, ensuring his legacy lasts for eternity.

Basic Techniques of Yi Zhi Mei

Hand Forms and Training Methods

Single Plum Blossom Fist employs several common hand forms, including Willow Leaf Palm (柳葉掌), Tiger Claw (虎爪), Five Petals Claw (五花爪), and Four Square Fist (四平拳).

Willow Leaf Palm

Hand Form – Willow Leaf Palm is the most commonly used hand form in Single Plum Blossom Fist. It involves the index, middle, ring, and little fingers pressed together and extended straight, while the thumb is bent inward, resembling a willow leaf.

Application – The main application of Willow Leaf Palm includes chopping forward, sweeping backward, sweeping left, sweeping right, upward spinning, and targeting the opponent’s throat.

Training Method – The master of Single Plum Blossom Fist, Master Gao Can, accumulated rich experience through decades of practice. He emphasised the training of the palm, focusing on hardness, sharpness, and adaptability. Hardness is like steel, sharpness is like a blade, and adaptability is as fast as lightning. For hardness training, one should strike wooden dummies, beds, stone slabs, and walls, aiming for 150-300 strikes, three to five times a day. For sharpness training, it is recommended to practice chopping, sweeping, grazing, and sweeping palm strikes with speed. As the saying goes, “Swiftness brings sharpness, and sharpness brings swiftness.” For adaptability training, one should practice random variations, determining which techniques to use in different situations, such as chopping, sweeping, grazing, seizing, or grabbing. Through repeated practice, these techniques become instinctive.

Five Petals Claw

Hand Form – The fingers are slightly spread apart and bent inward, resembling five petals.

Application – It is mainly used for grabbing and pulling the opponent’s arm, hair, ears, belt, or weapons.

Training Method – Practice gripping strength, pulling force, and grabbing speed using stone balls, iron balls, or jade balls while walking or before and after meals. Grip the balls and pull them with force. The faster, the better, focusing on developing speed.

Tiger Claw

Hand Form – The fingers are slightly apart, with the first and second finger joints flexed inward, and the thumb slightly bent towards the wrist, resembling a tiger’s claw.

Application – In Single Plum Blossom Fist, this hand form is often used in sudden changes during techniques or as a surprise attack.

Training Method – Practice flexing the fingers into the claw shape during walking or everyday movements to familiarise oneself with the hand form.

Four Square Fist

Fist Form – The middle, ring, and little fingers are flexed inward, with the fingertips passing over the palm and resting against the wrist. The thumb is bent inward, pressing below the knuckles of the middle and ring fingers, while all fingers tightly grip into a fist.

Application – Four Square Fist is the most commonly used fist form in Single Plum Blossom Fist, mainly used for shearing, smashing, charging, sweeping, lifting, and other techniques.

Training Method – Focus on training charging punches, starting with a forward bow stance. Perform forward strikes (palm facing up) and inward strikes (palm facing down), repeatedly practicing. This can be done with single punches, alternating punches from left to right, or both fists simultaneously. Then practice charging punches in a horse stance, following the same principles. Additionally, practice sweeping punches (diagonally to the left or right). Finally, practice palm strikes by striking downward on a solid object such as a wall, wooden dummy, or stone slab. Start with 150-300 strikes, three times a day, and gradually increase to 100-150 strikes per session after three months, achieving success within about six months.

Footwork and Leg Techniques

The footwork and leg techniques in Single Plum Blossom Fist are relatively simple yet refined. The footwork primarily consists of flying kicks, used in crucial moments during combat to target the opponent’s groin or lower limbs. Leg techniques include front sweeping kicks and rear sweeping kicks, employed when facing multiple opponents or in a disadvantaged position to sweep or disable the opponent’s lower limbs.

In summary, the hand, foot, body, eye, and stepping techniques employed in Single Plum Blossom Fist have unique characteristics. Although they may appear simple on the surface, they possess a distinctive and refined style. Single Plum Blossom Fist has been widely spread in Nanyang, contributing to the promotion of Shaolin Kung Fu, physical fitness, and cultural exchange.

Original Source of Chinese Article: De Yan (2006). The Complete Book of Chinese Shaolin Martial Arts, Beijing Sports Institute Press, page 1073-1097. Translated by Simon Wang.