Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow

Cloud Hands

Question 3

Both the Cloud Hands and the Grasping Sparrow's Tail are legacies of great past Masters.

Could you please elaborate more about those two legacies in terms of applications in daily life and combat, energy-force training and mind-spirituality cultivation aspects?

Sifu Roland Mastel


“Cloud Hands”, I believe, is the shortened form for “Flowing Water Floating Clouds”, which in turn was a poetic description of the free movements of Zhang San Feng in chi flow after practicing his kungfu. This is similar to what we do after practicing our kungfu and entering chi flow.

What Zhang San Feng practiced was Shaolin Kungfu – a fact not many people know. This Shaolin Kungfu was called Wudang Shaolin Kungfu to differentiate it from the Henan Shaolin Kungfu, sometimes called Song Shan Shaolin Kungfu, practiced at the northern Shaolin Temple on Song Shan or Song Mountain in Henan Province.

Wudang Shaolin Kungfu was later shortened to Wudang Kungfu, which later evolved into Taijiquan. To differentiate it from the other styles of Taijiquan, such as Chen, Yang and Wu, the prototype Taijiquan practiced by Zhang San Feng on the Wudang Mountain, which was actually Shaolin Kungfu, is now called Wudang Taijiquan.

During the subsequent Ming Dynasty, the imperial Shaolin Temple was moved to the south in the city of Quanzhou in Fujian Province. Shaolin Kungfu practiced here as well as spread to the public was called Fujian Shaolin Kungfu.

When this southern Shaolin Temple in Quanzhou was burnt by the Qing Army with the help of Lama kungfu experts, a few masters escaped. Amongst them, Pak Mei retreated to Ermei Mountain in Sichuan, Chee Seen built a secret Shaolin Temple on Nine-Lotus Mountain also in Fujian, Fong Tou Tuck retreated to Wudang Montain in Hebei, and Jiang Nan escaped out of China.

The Shaolin Kungfu practiced by Pak Mei and passed on to posterity was called Ermei Shaolin Kungfu, later shortened to Ermei Kungfu. The Shaolin Kungfu practiced by Fong Tou Tuck and passed on to posterity was called Wudang Shaolin kungfu, later shortened to Wudang Kungfu. This Wudang Kungfu from Fong Tou Tuck was different from the Wudang Kungfu of Zhang San Feng a few centuries earlier. Fong Tou Tuck’s Wudang Kungfu was harder and did not resember Taijiquan.

The secret southern Shaolin Temple on Nine-Lotus Mountain built by Chee Seen was also burnt by the Qing Army, led by Pak Mei. Many disciples, like Sam Tuck, Hoong Hei Khoon, Lok Ah Choy and Fong Sai Yoke, escaped to Guangdong Province. The Shaolin Kungfu spread by them was called Guangdong Shaolin Kungfu, but interestingly it was not shortened to Guangdong Kungfu.

Hence, there are five main types of Shaolin Kungfu, namely Henan or Song Shan Shaolin, Fujian Shaolin, Ermei Shaolin, Wudang Shaolin and Guangdong Shaolin. Henan or Song San Shaolin is regarded as Northern Shaolin as it originated from the northern Shaolin Temple. All the other four types of Shaolin are regarded as Southern Shaolin as they originated from the southern Shaolin Tempes in Quanzhou or on the Nine-lotus Mountain. Not many people, however, realize that there are two southern Shaolin Temples.

On the other hand, “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” refers to a series of Yang Style Taijiquan techniques devised by Yang Deng Fu. The techniques are “peng” or ward off, “lu” or roll back, “qi” or press forward, and “an” or in contact. The technique, “chen” or sink down, is also found in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, but traditionally it is not mentioned.

These five techniques are given poetic names in our Wahnam Taijiquan as follows:

  1. Peng – Immortal Waves Sleeves
  2. Lu – Double Dragons Play with Pearl
  3. Qi – Push Boat According to Flow of Current
  4. Chen – Black Bear Sinks Hips
  5. An – Open Window to Look at Moon

It is often said that Yang Style Taijiquan was invented by Yang Lu Chan. This is a misconception. What Yang Lu Chan practiced and used in defeating all challengers in his travels over China to test his martial art was Chen Style Taijiquan. It was his grandson, Yang Deng Fu, who modified Chen Style Taijiquan by making the forms bigger and the movements slower for health rather than combat purposes that Yang Style Taijiquan was created.

It is also said that Yang Lu Chan practiced Grasping Sparrow’s Tail thousands of times everyday, and used only Grasping Sparrow’s Tail to defeat all his challengers. This is a metachronism, a displace termed due to time difference. It is the same as saying that Yang Lu Chan lived in China. During his time, there was no China. The Republic of China was formed about a century later.

Similarly, during Yang Lu Chan’s time there was no Grasping Sparrow’s Tail. What Yang Lu Chan practiced was Cloud Hands, which was not in any fixed form, but the movements often included a pattern called “Lazy to Roll up Sleeves” in Chen Style Taijiquan, and it sounded like “lan chi yi” in the local dialect.

Later these free movements were stylized by later masters into specific forms, and were also collectively called “lan chi yi”. Over time, the oral “lan chi yi” which originally meant “Lazy to Roll up Sleeves”, was written as “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” as their pronunciations in the local dialect were similar.

This historical background, besides providing us with some interesting facts that the general public may not know, traces the legacies of Grasping Sparrow’s Tail from the time of Yang Deng Fu in the 20th century to Cloud Hands of Zhang San Feng in the 13th century. It also explains why many patterns in other styles, like Hungry Tiger Catches Goat in Hoong Ka, Circle-Hand in Wing Choon, Reading Spring-Autumn Annals in Baguazhang, and even the earlier Tiger Form in Xingyiquan are similar to the movements in Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail.

For us in Shaolin Wahnam, both Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail generate an energy flow, which in turn gives us good health, vitality and longevity. If it is unbelievable but true that if any of our student is sick or in pain, he can perform Cloud Hands or Grasping Sparrow’s Tail to have a chi flow, and if it is practiced regularly and sufficiently, he will overcome his illness or pain.

If he is already healthy, practicing Cloud Hands or Grasping Sparrow’s Tail will ensure his continued good health as well as contribute to his vitality and longevity.

Comparatively, Cloud Hands is easier as he does not have to worry about the numerous specific patterns in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail. But if he wishes to develop specific qualities to enhance his daily performance, like differentiating yin-yang and rotating his waist, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail is a better choice as these qualities are emphasized in particular patterns.

Practicing Cloud Hands or Grasping Sparrow’s Tail will also enable practitioners to be relaxed, graceful, elegant, have physical and mental balance, and attain mental freshness and clarity. These qualities enhance whatever they do in their daily life.

The benefits are spontaneous. In other words, practitioners do not need to know how to apply the qualities they have derived in their practice of Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail to whatever they do in daily life to enhance the results. The results will automatically be better without them having to do anything extra or special.

Presuming all other factors being equal, Cloud Hands is more effective than Grasping Sparrow’s Tail in giving relaxation, mental freshness and mental clarity. This is because Cloud Hands is simpler; practitioners need not be concerned with performing the various patterns of Grasping Sparrow’s Tail correctly.

Please remember that the comparison is relative. Grasping Sparrow’s Tail also gives these benefits, but Cloud Hands is more cost-effective if all other factors were equal. On the other hand, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail is relatively more cost-effective in making practitioners more graceful and elegant, and giving them physical and mental balance.

These benefits from practicing Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail apply to us and others who practice these two arts correctly. The benefits may not apply to the great majority who practice these two arts.

As it is often the case, some other people reading our literature may be angry at the above statements. This is their business. Actually, if they care to listen, they too will also benefit much from the secrets we openly share with the public.

Why do the great majority of people who also practice Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail not obtain the wonderful benefits we get? It is because they do not practice them as internal arts, they practice only their external forms. The crucial difference is chi flow. If they have chi flow, they practice them correctly as internal arts. If they do not have chi flow, they practice them as gentle physical exercise.

It is the chi flow, not the external techniques, that gives the benefits. The more chi flow a practitioner has, the more benefits he gets. Of course, he must also guard against over-training. As our chi flow is very powerful, it is easy for our students to over-train.

We shall now compare the benefits of Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail in combat application, energy-force training and mind-spirituality cultivation.

For most people, including those who have been teaching Taiji dance for many years and regarded as Taiji "masters", they cannot see any combat application in Cloud Hands. They also cannot see any combat application in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail.

They regard Cloud Hands as a pattern, and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail as a series of patterns in the Taiji they practice. Often they may not actually know why they practice Taiji, though they may say that they practice for health, but without realizing that their practice does not make much difference to their health.

If they examine themselves honestly, they may find that it is actually for socialization, which is important for happy living, or for fulfilling a habit which they have unconsciously developed.

Most Taiji "masters", especially if they are Chinese, know that Taijiquan is a martial art. But even when a martial art novice attacks them, they would not know how to defend themselves. This is the sad situation a great martial art like Taijiquan has fallen into.

Even those who train Taijiquan as a martial art may not know how to apply Cloud Hands, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail or any Taijiquan techniques for combat. They would use Kick-Boxing in their sparring and fighting, though some of them may be able to discuss Taijiquan combat application on paper.

So in reality, there is actually not much difference between Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail in terms of combat. More than 90% of Taiji practitioner would be unable to use them in combat situations.

But in theory, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail will provide more opportunities than Cloud Hands in combat because there are more techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail.

“Peng”, or ward off, as its name implies, can be employed to ward off an opponent’s attack, like a middle punch. “Lu”, or roll back, is used to roll back an opponent’s attack, like pulling his kick according to his kicking momentum to fell him. “Qi”, or press forward, is to press forward against an opponent, closing his two hands to fell him backward. “Chen”, or sink down, can be used to sink down an opponent as he shoots at you. “An”, or in contact, can be used to strike an opponent with your two palms.

There are also less obvious, but sophisticated, applications. When an opponent closes your defence by gripping your one hand against your other hand to your body, and simultaneously strikes you with his other hand, a combat situation many martial artists would be quite helpless, you can counter effective using “peng”. When an opponent grips your arm with his two hands, you can fell him using “lu”.

When an opponent grip your wrist, you can not only release his grip but also break his wrist by using “qi”. Those who have attended Taijiquan courses with me may be amazed at seeing how “chen” is used to fell an opponent at the time he tries to fell you. It is an excellent demonstration of the Taijiquan principle of using an opponent’s force against himself. As an opponent wards off your attack, you can close him completely using “an”.

There is only one type of movements in Cloud Hands, or two if we include its reverse movements. Most people would not know how these movements can be used in combat. But a master can use just Cloud Hands against any attack! This was what Yang Lu Chan did when he fought with many masters who attacked him in different ways.

The same situation, i.e. Grasping Sparrow’s Tail for practitioners in general, Cloud Hands for top masters, applies in energy-force training.

Both Cloud Hands and Grasping Sparrow’s Tail are very effective for generating energy flow and developing internal force. But practitioners in general will find Grasping Sparrow’s Tail more advantageous over Cloud Hands because the many techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail give practitioners more opportunities in their training.

As there are five techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, if you are tensed in one technique, the set-back can be compensated by the other four techniques. You will still be able to generate an energy flow.

If you fail to consolidate flowing energy into internal force in one technique, this set-back can be compensated by the other four techniques. You can still develop some internal force.

But there is only one technique in Cloud Hands. If you fail in this technique, you fail completely. You will not be able to generate an energy flow or develop internal force.

Grasping Sparrow’s Tail develops different types of force – peng force, lu force, qi force, chen force and an force, all of which are flowing. Cloud Hands develop only one type of force – flowing force.

But a master is different. He does not need five techniques, he only needs one. And he can generate more energy flow and consolidate more internal force using just one technique and in far shorter time than students using five techniques.

Because he is a master, having gone through the training of Grasping Sparrow’s Tail before, he can just develop flowing force using Cloud Hands, and he can convert the flowing force to peng force, lu force, qi force, chen force, an force, and any other types of force which practitioners of Grasping Sparrow’s Tail may be unable to do.

The same situation also applies in mind-spirituality cultivation. Because they are more techniques to perform, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail provides more opportunities for practitioners to tag their mind, thus attaining one-pointedness. When their mind wanders, which happens frequently to ordinary practitioners, they have more opportunities to bring their mind back to focus.

A master is different. He can focus his mind more readily than ordinary practitioners, and once focused he can maintain a one-pointed mind for a long time. He does not need the many techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail to help him. Hence, Cloud Hands is more advantageous. If he has to perform the many techniques of Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, he can maintain his one-pointed mind in a relaxed manner.

For letting the spirit roam freely and expanding the spirit into the Cosmos, skills that are applicable to masters rather than general practitioners, Cloud Hands has a big advantage over Grasping Sparrow’s Tail. Without having the numerous techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail to bother him, a master can feel a tremendous sense of freedom flowing spontaneously in Cloud Hands.

Without the restriction of the numerous techniques in Grasping Sparrow’s Tail which may tie him down to the phenomenal world, a master performing Cloud Hands can more readily expand into the Cosmos. This probably was what the great Zhang San Feng did when he attained immortality.

Cloud Hands

Grasping Sparrow's Tail


The questions and answers are reproduced from the thread Wahnam Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow Set: 10 Questions to Grandmaster Wong in the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum.