Cloud Hands

"Carrying Cosmos" in Grasping Sparrow's Tail

Question 2

What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting the Wahnam Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow Set over the Yang 108 pattern set as a specialist set for a Special Intensive Combined Taijiquan/Shaolinquan course in Malaysia?



Before answering the question, it is helpful to have a better understanding of the term “specialist set” or “specialized set”, as the term used by us has changed its meaning over time due to our progress. This description also reveals the development of our Shaolin and Taijiquan syllabuses.

In the first advanced combined Shaolin-Taijiquan course in July/August 2005 where only senior instructors were invited, no special sets were selected but we used Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan against other martial arts, like Judo, Grappling and Wrestling when Kai Uwe, who is an expert in these areas, taught many counters.

In the second advanced course in September 2005, five Shaolin sets, namely “Tiger-Crane”, “Dragon Form”, “Dragon-Tiger”, “Five Animals” and “Monkey”, were selected as “specialized sets” for closer study. They were called “specialized sets” because the core Shaolin syllabus at that time (and is still now) was the Basic 16 Combat Sequences. Course participants, having completed the 16 combat sequences, chose one of the five sets for further study.

The 16 Shaolin combat sequences were composed by me, and were based on the 12 Shaolin combat sequences at the Shaolin Wahnam Association in Sungai Petani, Malaysia in the 1980s. The 12 combat sequences were also composed by me to meet an expedient need, which was to enable students to apply kungfu patterns for combat in about 3 years instead of 15 years or more.

When I first learned Shaolin Kungfu from Uncle Righteousness, I learned mainly forms, which was the norm then and is also the norm now, except that some schools today introduce random free sparring using Boxing gloves and Kick-Boxing techniques into their schools. I was, however, quite outside the norm. I engaged in free sparring with my classmates, but was unsystematic then, and sought martial artists of other kungfu schools and other martial arts for free sparring.

Even at this early stage I remained undefeated, not because I was good but because I was smart. Unknown to me then I used Sun Tzu’s philosophy of knowing myself and knowing my enemy. Although I was not good, my opponents were worse.

When I learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, the emphasis was on force training and combat application. My kungfu performance improved tremendously. I still sought other kungfu practitioners and other martial artists for free sparring, and I could defeat them easily, often within three moves but sometimes I allowed them to go on for fun.

Again I was smart. Usually I could anticipate my opponents’ moves, and responded accordingly with counters I had prepared and practiced well beforehand. Infrequently, if their moves were outside what I had prepared, I just let them pass. Most attacks were stereotyped. If you prepare 10 counters well, you can handle more than 80% of attacks.

My path to using kungfu for free sparring was orthodox. I first learned kungfu forms – a lot of them. Then I engaged in free sparring, and tried to use the kungfu forms I had learned. This was unmethodical. When I learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, I made a huge jump in my learning process. Instead of figuring what kungfu patterns to use while sparring, my sifu taught me basic counters against common attacks. This saved me a lot of time and effort. But I still had to learned my forms first – Four-Gates and then Shaolin Bagua Set (which was different from the Baguazhang we now have in our school).

So when I taught at the Shaolin Wahnam Association in Sungai Petani in the 1980s, I used this method. The first kungfu set I learned from Uncle Righteousness was Tiger-Crane, and the first set I learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam was Four-Gates. I found Tiger-Crane too sophisticated for beginning students, so I used Four-Gates as the fundamental set which every student had to start with, like what occurred at the southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou before it was burnt by the Qing Army in the 1850s.

After Four-Gates, students could select one of the following: Bagua, Flower Set, Triple Stretch and Taming Tiger. Meanwhile I also taught 12 Shaolin combat sequences. This sped up the students’ ability to use kungfu patterns for free sparring from 15 years to 3 years. It took me about 15 years before I could use kungfu patterns to spar efficiently. This was actually not too bad, considering that most kungfu practitioners today could not use kungfu patterns to spar at all regardless of how long they had practiced or taught kungfu. Some of them use a semblance of Kick-Boxing.

I made another huge jump in using kungfu patterns for sparring when I first taught Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Courses in 2000s. Instead of teaching kungfu sets first, which is the norm, I started with the 16 Shaolin combat sequences, which were improved from the earlier 12 combat sequences.

There are some differences between the new set of 16 sequences and the earlier set of 12 sequences. The new set is more systematic and comprehensive as follows:

  1. Sequences 1 to 4 – Combat skills.
  2. Sequences 5 to 8 – Striking.
  3. Sequences 9 to 12 – Kicking.
  4. Sequences 13 to 16 – Felling and Chin-Na.

Originally I planned to have 20 combat sequences, with Sequences 17 to 20 emphasizing on chin-na. At that time videos were unknown; even photographs were not widely used. We could only complete 12 sequences comfortably and often had to rush through Sequences 13 to 16 which actually focused on felling. As chin-na was also included in Sequences 13 to 16, I left out Sequences 17 to 20.

These sequences were linked together to form sets, as follows:

  1. Sequence 1 to 4 – Black Tiger Steals Heart
  2. Sequences 5 to 8 – Fierce Tiger Speeds through Valley
  3. Sequences 9 to 12 – Happy Bird Hops up Branch
  4. Sequences 13 to 16 – Fell Tree with Roots

Sequences 17 to 20 are linked to form a set called Fierce Tiger Descends Mountain, and as we did not have sufficient time to learn it at an Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course, it was assigned to be a selective set, the meaning of which will be explained subsequently.

Before we attempted the combat sequences, we learned basic Shaolin patterns. 4 attack patterns and 4 defend patterns were linked to form a set called Lohan Asks the Way.

A parallel development occurred in Taijiquan. I also had 12 Taijiquan combat sequences when I taught at Shaolin Wahnam Association in Sungai Petani in the 1980s. These earlier 12 sequences were Taijiquan version of the 12 Shaolin sequences. The attack and defence were similar, but instead of using Shaolin techniques I used Taijiquan techniques.

Our present 12 Taijiquan combat sequences, however, were not derived from the earlier ones, but were evolved from my teaching of Pushing Hands and Striking Hands in Intensive Taijiquan Courses. As students systematically progressed from Pushing Hands to Striking Hands, discernable patterns emerged which I linked together to form the new 12 Taijiquan sequences.

The 12 sequences were linked together to form 4 Taijiquan sets as follows:

  1. Sequences 1 to 3 – White Snake Shoots Venom
  2. Sequences 4 to 6 – Green Dragon Shoots Pearl
  3. Sequences 7 to 9 – Black Bear Sinks Hips
  4. Sequences 10 to 12 – Carry Tiger Back to Mountain

Before attempting these combat sequences, we learned some basic Taijiquan patterns, which could be summed up in the sequence, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail.

The patterns were combined with some other basic patterns like Single Whip, White Crane Flap Wings, Green Dragon Shoots Pearl and Cross-Hand Thrust Kick to form a set called Cloud Hands. Although this is the shortest Taijiquan set in our school and therefore easy to learn, it incorporates all important techniques and skills of Taijiquan. It is the Taijiquan counterpart of Shaolin Lohan Ask the Way.

When I first taught Taijiquan in our school, I used the 24-Pattern Simplified Taijiquan Set, which is now called Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow in Wahnam Taijiquan. There are also other Wahnam Taijiquan sets, like Yellow Bee Sucks Pollen, which is a condensation of the 12 combat sequences into 8 sequences, and Old Eagle Catches Snake, which is a crystallization of the 12 sequences into 4 sequences.

There are also the 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan Set, and the Flowing Water Floating Clouds Set, which incorporates the essence of Chen Style Taijiquan. To top it all there is the Wudang Taijiquan Set, which is the climax of Shaolin Kungfu development and the source of all styles of Taijiquan.

Hence, we were quite revolutionary. Instead of starting with classical Shaolin or Taijiquan sets, which students today learn mainly for demonstration but are unable to apply them for combat, we started with combat sequences composed by me, and students were able to apply them for combat in a matter of months instead of years which some exceptional students could do. Our students also have benefits of health and spiritual joys that other students may not have.

This relatively long background is not only interesting as it describes how our kungfu sets developed, but is also necessary to understand the meaning of the term “specialist set” or “specialized set”. We first used the term “specialized set” to different it from “basic sets” like Black Tiger Steals Heart and Fierce Tiger Speeds through Valley in Shaolin Kungfu, and White Snake Shoots Venom and Green Dragon Shoots Venom in Taijiquan, which all Shaolin and Taijiquan students in our school practice. In other words, a specialized set was one a student attending a particular course chosed to specialize in. A basic set was one all students would learn in a regular class or in an intensive course.

For example, in an early Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course in 2005, Dragon-Tiger and Five Animals were specialized sets, because only some students who attended this course chose these sets to specialize in. Sets like Lohan Asks the Way and Black Tiger Steals Heart practiced by all Shaolin students in our school were basic sets.

In the recent Taijiquan Festival in St Petersburg in the United States, Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow, 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan, Flowing Water Floating Clouds and Wudang Taijiquan were specialized sets as only those who attended this course learned them. White Snake Shoots Venom and Green Dragon Shoots Pearl were basic sets because all Taijiquan students in our school learned them.

The term “specialized set” might give an impression that the set was very advanced. This was not the original intention, as sets like Dragon-Tiger and Five Animals were intermediate, and sets like Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow and White Crane Flaps Wings (another specialized set that I taught in some regional Taijiquan courses) were quite elementary. Thus, we changed the term “specialized set” to “selective set” to convey the meaning that it was a set a student selected to learn in a particular course, instead of a set he specialized in at an advanced level. If he chose to specialize in it later on, a selective set could become a specialized set.

Cloud Hands

"Carrying Cosmos" in Cloud Hands

We can now examine with more insight the advantages and disadvantages of selecting Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow over 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan as a selective set in a Special Combined Shaolin-Taijiquan Course.

Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow (henceforth called Grasp Sparrow for short) is a shorter version derived from the longer 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan (henceforth called 108-Pattern). Hence, the philosophy, skills, techniques, tactics, strategies and application of both sets are the same. Advantages and disadvantages concerning the two sets are mainly due their length. What is advantageous in one set can be disadvantageous in the other.

Cloud Hands has 24 patterns, whereas 108-Pattern has 108 patterns. Although there are only 24 patterns, Grasp Sparrow contains all significant patterns found in 108-Pattern, because the same patterns are repeated numerous times in the longer set. Some patterns, like Lift Hand, Carry Tiger Back to Mountain, Separate Leg, Strike Tiger Poise, Bend Bow Shoot Tiger and Sway Lotus Leg, are not found in the shorter set.

Being shorter, Grasp Sparrow is easier and faster to learn. The sequences are clear-cut, and one can learn the whole set in a relatively short time. The numerous repetitions in 108-Pattern can sometimes be confusing, causing beginning students to be mixed up in various sections of the set.

On the other hand, those who have time and patience may find the longer set more rewarding. Not only the extra patterns found in the longer set contributes more combat applications, but also as the longer set has more combinations of common techniques arranged in different sequences, it gives more depth and variety in combat situations.

For example, although Grasp Sparrow has Low Stance Single Whip to defend against any kicking attacks, 108-Pattern has an added pattern in Striking Tiger Poise for this purpose. The advantage of Striking Tiger Poise over Low Stance Single Whip is that the former technique is quicker and more versatile.

Sway Lotus Kick is found in 108-Pattern but not in Grasp Sparrow. This technique is useful against sweeping kicks, as well as to deflect simultaneous attacks from many spears or to capture the spears.

In Grasp Sparrow, Single Whip occurs twice. The first time it is followed by Cloud Hands. There is not much combat significance in having these two patterns together; they just happen to follow one after the other to present the two patterns in the set.

The second time, Single Whip is followed by High Padding Horse, and two Thrust Kicks. There is some combat significance here. If an opponent counter attacks after you have executed a Single Whip, you can brush of his counter-attack and strike with a thrust palm using High Padding Horse. As he tries to dodge, follow up with a thrust kick. The second thrust kick is for a different situation, when an opponent attacks from behind.

In 108-Pattern, Single Whip is followed by the same sequence as above as well as by other different sequences. In Sequence 3 of 108-Pattern, Single Whip is followed by Cloud Hands, and again by High Padding Horse and two Separate Kicks (or organ-seeking kicks) instead of thrust kicks. As an opponent wards off your Single Whip and counter-attacks, you respond with a palm strike using High Padding Horse. As he dodges or tries to ward off your palm thrust, you follow up with a Separate Kick or organ-seeking kick. As soon as he dodges or wards off the kick, you move in with another Separate Kick.

In Sequence 1 of 108-Pattern, Single Whip is followed by Lift Hands, White Crane Flaps Wings and Green Dragon Shoots Pearl. If you attack an opponent with Single Whip and having warded off your attack he releases a triple attack of a strike, a kick and another strike, you can deflect his first strike with Lift Hand, strike his kicking leg with White Crane Flaps Wings, and brush off his second strike and simultaneously counter-strike with Green Dragon Shoots Pearl.

In Sequence 5, Single Whip is followed by Playing the Lute and Flying Slantingly. When an opponent counter with a punch after warding off your Single Whip, you can break his arm using Playing the Lute. As he pulls back his arm, you can fell him with Flying Slantingly.

In Sequence 6, Single Whip is followed by Snake Body Low Stance and Golden Cockerel Stands Solitarily. If an opponent executes a sweeping kick after warding off your Single Whip, you avoid his sweeping kick using Snake Body Low Stance. As he jumps in to grab your neck and executes a series of knee jabs as in Muay Thai, you respond with Golden Cockerel Stands Solitarily.

If you wish to give a Taijiquan demonstration, though this is not an important aim in our school, Grasp Sparrow is crisp and neat, and suits the purpose well. 108-Pattern is too long and may be boring to spectators. However, if the spectators are martial artists who wish to have a deep appreciation of Taijiquan, 108-Pattern will serve the purpose better.

Most people today practice Taijiquan for health. Grasp Sparrow would be too short for them to have generated sufficient health benefit in their practice. Grasp Sparrow is better for learning important Taijiquan techniques, or for exhibiting Taijiquan techniques in wushu competitions as it was originally intended. 108-Pattern, performed leisurely in one’s garden, is ideal for relaxing, loosening joints and muscles, and attaining gracefulness and balance.

But this disadvantage of Grasping Sparrow, or reversely the advantage of 108-Pattern, may not apply to use in Shaolin Wahnam. By choosing just a few patterns from either Grasp Sparrow or 108-Pattern to generate an energy flow, we can attain more health benefits in shorter time than other people practice the long 108-Pattern set.

Even if we leave aside energy flow, because of our cost-effectiveness, we can also have more benefits relaxing, loosening joints and muscles, and attaining gracefulness and balance by performing Grasp Sparrow as gentle physical exercise than other people practicing the long 108-Pattern set. Other people may think us arrogant, but we are just stating a fact, which unfortunately the other people may not appreciate or even understand.

We are more cost-effective because we understand Taijiquan mechanics, like differentiating yin-yang and rotating the waist, whereas other people may not, and hence make mistakes like throwing their body forward, thus lacking grace, and shifting their body, thus hurting their knees. We can get more benefit practicing correctly for 3 minutes than other people practicing incorrectly for 10 minutes.

It is more advantageous to learn Taijiquan mechanics using Grasp Sparrow than using 108-Pattern. This is because as Grasp Sparrow is short and comparatively simple, one can better focus on the task at hand, whereas as 108-Pattern is longer and comparatively complicated, he is more easily distracted from the task by attempting to remember the routine.

Nevertheless, for most people having learnt Taijiquan mechanics correctly, it is more advantageous to practice 108-Pattern than Grasp Sparrow to develop energy flow and internal force. This is because 108-Pattern is longer, therefore it provides more opportunities for development, and also the movements are generally smoother, therefore it facilitates better energy flow.

In other words, presuming all other factors being equal, if one person practices Grasp Sparrow and another person practices 108-Pattern, the second person is more likely to develop energy flow and internal force than the first person. Again, this does not apply to us in Shaolin Wahnam. It is because of two reasons – we know the philosophy, and we have the skills -- energy flow and consolidating force – to realize the philosophy.

Regarding combat application, Grasp Sparrow has the advantage of learning faster, whereas 108-Pattern has the advantage of learning more. If a person is limited in time but wishes to apply Taijiquan well in combat, Grasp Sparrow is an excellent choice. If he has a lot of time and wishes to go deeper into Taijiquan combat application, 108-Pattern provides a better alternative.

All important Taijiquan applications are found in Grasp Sparrow. Grasp Sparrow also has more than sufficient techniques to handle any combat situations, except perhaps when one is being pinned down on the ground. Not many kungfu sets, including Grasp Sparrow and 108-Patterns, have counters against being pinned on the ground, though most of them, if not all, have techniques preventing this from happening. If one is already being pinned down on the ground, he has to borrow a technique or two from Drunken Eight Immortals to counter the situation.

Relatively speaking, it is more advantageous to use 108-Pattern than Grasp Sparrow for spiritual cultivation. This does not mean that Grasp Sparrow is not effective for spiritual cultivation, but presuming all other factors being equal, 108-Pattern is a better choice. This is because the arrangement of the patterns in 108-Pattern are more flowing and conducive to leading practitioners into a deeper level of consciousness. The arrangement of patterns in Grasp Sparrow is comparatively more abrupt, which tend to keep practitioners in their everyday consciousness.

This relative disadvantage of Grasp Sparrow does not apply to us. Right at the beginning we smile from the heart, which sets our spirit free. Immediately we enter Tao, which bring us to a heightened level of consciousness. Other people practicing 108-Pattern have to spend some time over many patterns before they can come close to this spiritual level.

Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow is derived from 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan. If one is short of time or likes to have an introduction to Yang Style Taijiquan, Grasp Sparrow is a very good choice. If he has a lot of time and wishes to specialize in Yang Style Taijiquan, 108-Pattern is a more complete approach.

Our school is unprecedented in kungfu and chi kung history. We offer such a wide range of courses and in such high standards that practitioners in the past could not dream about, nor practitioners in future may have a similar opportunity. Not only this, we also have the great advantage of breadth and depth. In other words, whereas other practitioners would have minimized results when practicing two or more arts at the same time, we maximize our results remarkably!

For convenience we can classify our many Taijiquan sets in our school as follows:

Basic Level

  1. Cloud Hands
  2. White Snake Shoots Venom
  3. Green Dragon Shoots Pearl
  4. Black Tiger Sinks Hips
  5. Carry Tiger Back to Mountain
  6. Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow
  7. White Crane Flaps Wings

Intermediate Level

  1. Yellow Bee Sucks Pollen
  2. Old Eagle Catches Snake
  3. 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan
  4. Taiji Sabre
  5. Taiji Staff
  6. Wudang Sword

Advanced Level

  1. Flowing Water Floating Clouds
  2. Wudang Taijiquan

It is worthy of note that the basic level is the most important, and in many ways it is also the most useful. If one has not done well at the basic level, his future progress both as a matter of time and of potential will be much affected.

Lessons from basic courses are also more useful in daily life. In free sparring or real fights, basic skills and techniques are generally more effective. In daily activities, basic skills and techniques are more often used than advanced ones.

However, if you wish to specialize, it is wiser to choose an advanced set. It gives more breadth and depth in practice as well as more wisdom in philosophy.

Yang Style Taijiquan

108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan


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.