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Shaolin's Quintessential Weapon: the Staff

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Lohan 羅漢 with staff.

What is the likely candidate for the "earliest weapon of choice"? In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," the author gave us his view of the "Dawn of Weaponry" by depicting a primitive ape-man discovering that a length of bone gave him an advantage over his opponents. This is not a far-fetched idea – a large stick might have also done, and a stick easily becomes a staff or "stave." The staff is an innocuous, commonplace item – a "walking stick." But in the blink of an eye, a trained fighter can turn it into an instrument for discouraging an attacker. If the attacker persists, it can become the most lethal of weapons. The earliest book on Shaolin fighting is a manual on staff techniques. There are other reasons why the Shaolin environment was a natural place for this particular weapon's development.

Xi Zhang 錫杖 (left): also called Yun Shui Xie Xi 雲水携(攜)錫 (Cloud and Rain Alarm Staff); Yue Ya Chan 月牙鏟 (right), an alarmed spade.

Staffs were basically of three categories, which were common in Shaolin. First, the Shuo Fa Gan 說法杆, which was a staff signifying the authority of the Abbot; second the Xi Zhang 錫杖 or Fa zhang (called Khatvanga in Sanskrit), also called an 'alarm staff, and was used by mendicant monks. The third category was the Qi Mei Gun 齊(齐)眉棍 eyebrow staff. A monk using a Xi Zhang 錫杖 or an eyebrow staff as a weapon was more than a match against an opponent armed with another weapon. During Imperial times it was common for monks to travel with alarmed staves. These were fashioned with small metal rings that made a sound when walking. The most commonly used alarm staff, up until the last years of the Ching Dynasty (1644–1912), was an alarmed shovel called Fang Bien Chan 方便鏟. Other rare alarmed staves used by Chan monks in traveling included Yue Ya Cha 月牙叉 and Liu Jing Dang Chan 流境擋鏟. Marital arts training for the type of xi zhang one sees held by the Buddhist deity, Ti Tsang Pusa, in his right hand is very rare. In ancient times this lightweight alarm staff was also called Yun Shui Xie Xi 雲水携(攜)錫 (Cloud and Rain Alarm Staff). A Shaolin monk trained in the expert use of a staff weapon becomes a fearsome opponent for even a much larger man. There was a real as well as a perceived increase in force. Since the major ingredient in any victory is often the "intimidation factor," an army of such men would put an opposing party at a psychological disadvantage. The second argument converges on Lt. Col. Grossman's* view that man does not share one basic trait found in other predators – he is not normally a close-range killer. Therefore using longer-range weapons helped individuals overcome their natural resistance to hands-on killing by creating distance between the combatants. This distance also enabled people to attack from outside a range of danger.

A seventeenth-century fresco of a Shaolin monk with a black tiger stands in Shaolin's classic eyebrow staff defensive stance. The tiger symbolizes the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, the protector, and is also associated with compassion and generosity.

The fighting staff was listed as one of the "five weapons" as early as the Former Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D.). Staves found in tombs of this period were round and made from a single piece of wood. It is documented that at Shaolin, weapons in the form of staves were part of the training from the earliest times. It is likely that at Shaolin, the 'staff', combined with a range of athletic maneuvers, reached its highest level of refinement. Even a military manual published by order of the Korean Imperial government in 1790 acknowledges that Shaolin staff methods were excellent–having the characteristics of both the spear and the staff. Weapons used by wandering monks tended to be discreet, with some doubling as household or farming tools. For example, the spade became a common defensive alarm pole weapon for traveling Chan monks. Some scholars believe that the staff was one of the five weapons mentioned in the famous Han Dynasty military classic Wuzi 吳子, which suggests it was then used in the military. Even as late as the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), when bladed (cold) weapons reached their height of development, the staff was seen as a viable military weapon, and Wu Jing Zong Yao military encyclopedia from the Song Dynasty lists several variations including a simple wooden staff named bai bang. It was, however, Shaolin monks who made the staff famous from the Tang Dynasty onwards. The 'staff' was a highly effective long weapon but did not have the stigma of a battlefield-killing implement, with which the population had become all too familiar.

* Evolution of Weaponry, A brief look at man’s ingenious methods of overcoming his physical limitations to kill., by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen

A Buddhist Abbot with Shuo Fa Gan 說法杆 (Speaking 'the' Law Staff).

Sparring with an 'eye-brow staff'.

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