by Sifu Ken Lo

Wu Mei was the daughter of a general in the Ming imperial court. As such she had the benefit of imperial tutors in scholarly pursuits as well as the finest martial art training of the period. This was the early seventeenth century. China’s imperial army dominated the continent and had not been seriously challenged for some time. For this reason, many of the top martial artists spent their time developing feats of strength and intricate, flowery movements for performances and exhibitions in much the same way as peacetime armies develop air shows and military exhibition drills. Many Chinese martial art styles of today are derived from this period and reflect the beautiful performing arts legacy of that time.

Wu Mei did not approve of the direction that the military was taking and felt that the army was not training for a state of combat readiness. She advocated strong rigorous training. Not to perform intricate flowery movements or feats of strength, but to improve military strategy and pragmatic martial skills. She innovated wooden pile training, logs driven into the ground in a huge matrix of patterns of five, the number of mystical order and power in Chinese thought. She called the five pattern "plum blossom" because the plum blossom has five symmetrical petals. This may represent the five extremities of the human body: head arms and legs; the five elements: metal, earth, wood, water, fire; or the five directions: center, north, south, east, west, as well as many other groupings of five. The five pattern logs covered much of her outdoor training hall. Standing five feet off the ground on top of the logs Wu Mei trained her horse. She stepped in patterns resembling the five petals of the plum blossom; China’s national flower, again following the pattern of five so essential to Chinese organizational thought. As a highly educated scholar, she was acutely aware of interrelating all actions to natural symmetry and Chinese civilization. The result of training on the wooden piles was a refined sense of balance, strong ankles, legs and "horse" as well as symmetrical precision in her horse stepping. She later would answer challenges in her training yard and defeated many skilled opponents who quickly lost their footing on top of the piles.

While many martial artists of her time developed and performed matched two person sets simulating fight sequences, Wu Mei rejected these methods in favor of rigorous strength training with iron bars followed by wood and bamboo staffs to retain soft and light strength as well as develop heavy and slow strength. Wu Mei strove to balance the different kinds of strength much in the same way female bodybuilders today have added flexibility, movement, and grace to competitive bodybuilding. The expression of the different strengths enabled her method to cope with opponents of diverse strength levels and strategy, constantly altering the nature of her response in order to undermine, absorb, reflect, overcome, or divert her opponent’s strength. To train proper response she developed "sensitive hand" training, a cross between Wing Chun’s "sticking hand" and Tai Chi’s "push hand" exercises. She however developed the "sensitive hand" exercise before the other two methods existed.

Sensitive hand training is performed first with one hand. When attacking, the forearm is vertical; when defending, the forearm is horizontal. Later, a circling pattern with either one or two hands is performed by the players. The goal is to strike the opponent with an open backhand to the chest while preventing the opponent from doing the same. Yielding from direct force while diverting energy away from the centerline is essential in defense. Immediate, simultaneous counterattack is performed aimed at the cracks and holes of the opponent’s guard or defense. This exercise although working in a structural framework of technique, allows the players to use individual appropriate response and sometimes unpredictable movements, unlike the "matched sets" of other methods that created predictable, albeit strong patterns of attack and defense, which Bruce Lee termed the "classical mess". Individuality, improvisation, and unpredictability are the hallmarks of Wu Mei’s strategy.

In order to generate the strength necessary to defeat larger and stronger opponents, Wu Mei utilized Chi Kung breathing techniques used in health exercises and adapted them to produce martial power. By cultivating a great reservoir of internal breath in the Dan Tien, a sea of "chi" (breath) is produced. This internal breath is circulated and pressurized, like a rubber tire holding up a car, or its rebounding force much like a basketball dribbling. Also, this breath force "chi kung" can be transformed into "Dien Kung" electrical force which is used to enhance nervous system function to generate increased speed, accuracy, or power. Dien Kung can further be refined to become "Tsun Kung" spirit force, which rallies the body’s energy and creates unified movement and sense of purpose.

In the mid-seventeenth century the Manchu invaded China’s capital and overthrew the Ming emperor. Wu Mei was traveling in the countryside at the time and did not realize this was happening. When she heard the news, she was informed that her parents were murdered in the invasion. She was advised to seek amnesty in the White Crane Shaolin Temple in Kwangsi Province and help the Ming loyalists raise an army there. Wu Mei led raids to the palace of the Manchu rulers and even succeeded in assassinating the Manchu prince. Wu Mei never taught her martial art outside the temple so that her method would not fall into enemy hands. Her students were all monks and nuns of the Chan Buddhist sect practiced in the White Crane Shaolin temple.

In 1913, a boy of thirteen saw a soldier aiming a rifle at a monk as if meaning to shoot him. The young boy quickly pushed the soldier so that the soldier would miss the monk if he fired. The monk then noticed the soldier and ran into the woods for cover. This monk eluded the soldier and later found the boy who saved his life. When he found the boy, he questioned him about his parents and asked where he lived. The boy replied that his name was Hseih Peng and that his parents were both killed in a flood a few years earlier, which made him an orphan. In gratitude, the monk offered to bring the boy to the temple where he lived to study kung-fu. The boy loved martial arts and anxiously agreed to accompany the monk to his temple if he could learn the famous Shaolin Temple martial arts.

The monk took him to the seashore however and not the temple, explaining that in order to enter the Shaolin Temple, he must prove his ability to work hard and long under adverse conditions, otherwise he would be wasting the time of his kung-fu instructors. The monk then showed him how to "walk the horse" on the rocky shore front and instructed him to continue walking the horse all day until he returned with his dinner at sunset. Peng did as he was told and dutifully walked the Wu Mei horse until the monk returned that evening. When the monk returned he was surprised to see the boy still walking on the rocks as he was instructed. The monk fully expected the boy to abandon the task shortly after he left. He called the boy over and examined his feet. He gave the boy medicine for his bruised feet and a monk’s dinner of vegetables and rice. Peng ate heartily and listened to the monk’s further instructions. The monk was pleased at young Peng’s discipline and instructed him to walk on the rocks each day for thirty days, after which time he promised to take him to the temple. Peng diligently walked each day as instructed even though his feet developed blisters and bled. Each evening the monk returned with medicine and food and told him stories of Wu Mei and the Shaolin Temple. In time Peng’s feet grew strong and he ran the horse on the rocks easily without bleeding and pain.

On the thirtieth day, the monk took Peng to a mountaintop. He showed the boy a tree in the distance and said that with his Wu Mei horse so developed, show him how he could run up to the tree and touch it. Although it was a steep climb, Peng thought to himself: "this is easy" and ran up the side of the mountain. When he almost reached the tree, another monk popped out from behind the tree and threw a bucket of water down to the ground in front of the boy. The ground in front of him became muddy and Peng started slipping down the mountainside. He kept trying to reach the tree but the monk at the tree kept throwing water down in front of him. Then the boy saw the monk who brought him there bound up the side of the mountain moving his hands and legs like a tiger leaping. The monk reached the tree easily and said to Peng, "use ‘the tiger climbs the mountain’ horse step and you will reach the tree as I did." When Peng tried it, it worked! He bounded up the mountainside with his hands and feet just like the monk.

Having passed the second test, the monk took the boy to the temple courtyard. A monk emerged from inside and told Peng: "There are seven doors in which you may enter. One contains a tiger, another a killer, yet another leads away from the temple, danger lurks behind another. Only one door leads to the temple training hall. You must choose the correct one!" With that the monk turned his back to the boy and clasped his hands behind him. Peng immediately recognized the hand sign code the monk used and knew that the monk was indicating which door was the right one. Peng walked directly in to the correct door leading to the training hall and found himself surrounded by monks training in Wu Mei kung-fu. He saw monks jumping high in the air as if defying gravity, monks breaking stones with their heads, and monks making intricate palm and fist movements that whirled in the air creating a wind that would hit him like a thunderstorm.

Peng trained there until he became an adult, learning from each monk a different specialty. He started with jumping, which the monks told him is best practiced when young, (before puberty) because his life force energy would not yet have been diverted to sexual activity and the creation of progeny. To train this skill, the monks tied bamboo sticks with rope to his legs, so that his knees were straight and could not bend. Only his ankles could move. Then, Peng was told to jump into a pit that was four feet deep and instructed to try to jump out using only his foot and ankle movement. He had to sleep and eat in the pit until he could jump out by himself. Five days later, after exhaustive tries, he made the jump and was free of the pit. He then could continue his training.

His next task was to throw a crumpled piece of paper at a bamboo vase filled with bamboo sticks used for fortune telling. His task was to knock the vase down with the paper ball. Of course the paper was too light to knock over the vase. Young Peng spent two weeks throwing the paper ball at the vase to no avail. The senior monk who was his sponsor finally gave Peng a small instruction. The monk placed his hand with the paper ball in it against his abdomen at the tan tien point and shot his arm and fist out in a horizontal movement as if drawing a sword out from his side. His fist and arm moved like a spring out and back faster than the eye could follow. The paper ball knocked the bamboo vase over as if it was shot by a cannon ball; the bamboo sticks flying across the room. Once seeing this, Peng imitated the movement and within a week was able to accomplish his task.

Peng’s next task was to try to create a wind by moving his palms rapidly in the air; lifting them up over his head and throwing them out and down in front of him. When the monk demonstrated, a great wall of wind hit Peng, forcing him to close his eyes and jump back with fear. The monk placed a burning candle five feet in front of the boy and asked him to practice the “avalanche” palm in front of the candle, until he could extinguish the flame from the wind generated by his palms. In only one day, Peng accomplished this. Pleased, on the next day, the monk added a second candle placed one foot to the side of the first candle. Peng now had to extinguish both candles with his “avalanche” palm. Again, he succeeded in only one day. Each succeeding day, the monk added another candle, placed to the side, a foot apart, until the seventh day, when Peng extinguished seven candles placed a foot apart in a horizontal row. The monk then taught Peng how to kick with a sudden pull down motion preceeding the kick and instructed him to use the kick to blow out the candles. In two weeks, Peng accomplished this feat and proceeded to learn the “bow and arrow” punch, a punch powered by an action like drawing a bow string back and releasing an arrow. Once he was able to extinguish the candles with the “bow and arrow” punch, the “pull down” kick, and the “avalanche” palm at will, this training exercise concluded. Peng spent his adolescent years training this way.

The Abbot of the monastery, Hoi San, had consulted the oracle concerning this outsider coming into the temple to train. He read in the oracle that a young outsider would train in the temple, learn the powerful Wu Mei Pai method and use it to cause trouble in the outside world by challenging martial art adepts in duels all across China. Because of this reading, the Venerable Hoi San refused to be involved in young Peng’s training. Peng’s sponsor was the Abbot’s senior disciple and he observed that the boy had a wart at the end of his nose at precisely the point of concentration in meditation. He pointed out to his Sifu that this indicated that the boy could learn very well and would become a highly skilled, compassionate, and kind person that would one day benefit many in the outside world. The Abbot agreed with his disciple to let Peng stay and train with the monks, but never looked Peng in the face. In fact, Peng was never allowed to look at the Abbot’s face! Despite this, Peng saw the Abbot perform a prayer each morning that caused a tub of water to boil for the monk’s to wash and he observed him place stones in his mouth and spit them out, embedding them into the trunks of trees!

When he left the temple, Peng was anxious to test his temple training. He entered every martial arts tournament he could find, traveling throughout China. In the 1930’s, the tournaments were rough, contestants had to sign a waiver acknowledging that they could be killed in the contest. Many contestants were in fact killed. When Peng first entered the tournaments, he decided he would “use the least to defeat the most”. He would just stand with one fist extended straight out and the other arm bent in front of him. He would just walk into his opponent in this posture. Sometimes, his opponents were so shocked by this bold maneuver, they just stood there, frozen and got hit. Once hit, they would either fly back reeling, or sustain an injury. If they tried strike Peng, Pengs’ arms would deflect the attack while continuing to attack his opponent. Throughout many tournaments, no opponent was able to get past this simple, aggressive strategy, until the young Peng worked his way up to the top tournament fighters who were a serious challenge to him.

One of the top tournament players was a man known for breaking the backs of his opponents over his knee. Peng had to fight him. He knew that this fighter’s strength lay in his back and arms so he maneuvered to evade his grip and avoided striking to his chest, which would give the champion an opportunity to grab him. Peng instead would hit outside, past his arms and on the return of his strike, hit the nerve at the elbows of his opponent. One or two hits paralyzed the champions’ arms and Peng was able to dislocate his elbow with a locking maneuver, rendering him harmless.

Anther opponent was known for his “tiger claw” technique and no opponent could punch or kick him without being mauled by his claw and then easily finished off by a punch, kick or lock. Peng’s strategy to defeat this opponent was again not to attack the center, but to attack from the flank in curved movements avoiding the most powerful claw movements. By going around from the sides, Peng was able to reach behind the claw and strike the small metacarpal bones on the back of his opponent’s hands, breaking them. Once his claw was broken, Peng’s opponent admitted defeat.

There was a contestant who had a shaven head and used "Tao Gung," a powerful head force that Peng saw at the Shaolin Temple. He was surprised that someone outside the temple had this skill. Peng thought that “Tao Gung” was exclusive to Wu Mei Pai. Once seeing this opponent, he knew this was the most dangerous opponent he ever faced. If struck by this contestants’ head, he would not survive. Peng, immediately upon facing him, began evasive maneuvers to tire and frustrate his opponent. Eventually, Peng’s opponent became like an enraged bull, and started charging at Peng, head first. Just at the peak of his opponents’ blind rage, Peng used the “avalanche” palm to press his opponents’ head and back down while he immediately kicked up onto his opponent’s throat, breaking his neck. This was the first time Peng ever killed a contestant. Even though he felt like this was a kill or be killed situation, he was filled with remorse. Peng gave the widow one hundred thousand yuan as recompense for her loss.

In 1945 he retired from competition, undefeated. During the Chinese Nationalist period, Hseih Peng gained prominence in the Chinese Nationalist Party. He was Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s family physician and served General Chiang Kai Shek in a special service capacity. His division was known as the "suicide squad". The assigned missions were so dangerous, the agents were not expected to survive. Master Peng was the only survivor of his squad and was named "Hero Peng". He was entrusted as personal bodyguard to General Chiang Kai Shek.

In 1973 Master Peng arrived in New York. He never taught the Wu Mei Pai system before and in the old tradition searched for worthy students to become disciples to pass the line into the next generation only after his age was advanced. I was very fortunate to have been selected as one of those students. When I met him, I had already been training for ten years in martial arts and yet felt helpless in his class. Sifu Peng exuded a power that rendered me powerless to resist his force. When he would move, a powerful wind swept through the room like a storm. He often liked to use me as a target for demonstrations because I didn’t mind. Actually, I considered it an honor to be hit by him. I felt it was a great opportunity to feel his power up close and first-hand. He would never seriously hurt me. His touch was very powerful, yet controlled. After class, I would notice small yellow marks where he had struck me, even if the strikes were very light. When I asked him about the marks, he replied that they indicated that his energy (Chi) was deposited just on the surface of my body that would not harm me. But he cautioned that if I ever found black marks where he hit me I must see him immediately because that would indicate that his Chi had penetrated deep into my body and serious injury would result without his cure. Fortunately I never found any black marks.

Because of my training in other Chinese martial arts I learned very quickly in his class. I used to mimic every gesture and expression of the Sifu not knowing what detail was the essential one that gave him those remarkable abilities. The other students teased me by saying that I moved like an old man. But I was just following my Sifu’s mannerisms! I must have been doing something right, because in 1977, four years after beginning Wu Mei Pai training, I was asked to become Grandmaster Peng’s disciple, and to represent his life’s work forever. I of course said yes! Grandmaster explained what I needed to get for the ceremony and he selected an auspicious day. After the ceremony, I took the other disciples and my Master to a restaurant in Chinatown for a grand Chinese banquet, as was the tradition. As a disciple I was required to remember all the steps in the process of learning Wu Mei Pai, even though as Grandmaster often said: "to reach the higher rungs in climbing a ladder you have to let go of the lower rungs". My teacher knew that I wanted to teach Wu Mei Pai one day and so made sure to teach me a systematic method that I could carry on. In order to be able to teach women someday, I learned weapons and techniques only they needed to practice. I took copious notes all during my years with him and still discover insights upon reviewing them. I remained devoted to Grandmaster Peng and was with him up until his death in November of 1988. I visit his wife and family often and I continue on as director of the Wu Mei Kung Fu Association, which was founded by the Grandmaster in 1973.