Training the Sequence

Barehand vs Staff (Kong Shou Dui Gun, 空手對棍) is an exciting and challenging sequence in which the barehand side trains agility to avoid being clocked by the staff. Most practitioners will not excel to the level of avoiding full speed attacks. Instead, practicing the sequence trains endurance and teaches a sense of timing, distance, and angling – skills used in all aspects of martial arts and sometimes in daily life.

The staff side has the clear advantage. Therefore, the practitioner must have proficiency and control to minimize the chances of injuring their partner. To best utilize the weapon, the practitioner attempts to keep the barehand side at the staff's length. If the partners end up in close range, it's up to the staff side to create more distance.

The barehand side aims to close the distance to render the staff useless and possibly take control of it. They should wait until the staff side commits to the attack before moving. If the barehand side moves too soon, the staff side will be able to redirect their attack.

In the sequence, both sides begin out of each other's ranges. To close the distance from long to middle range, the staff side advances with a strike. The barehand side dodges the staff by hopping at an angle. To go from middle to short range, the barehand side hops in to seal the staff. Throughout the sequence, the barehand side will hop in and out of the staff's range. When in close, the barehand side can seal the staff at various angles.

The primary objective of practicing Barehand vs Staff is to train White Crane jumping and reaction. Most practitioners will not excel to the level of avoiding full speed attacks. The jumps and hops in this sequence are particular to the White Crane style and are especially taxing on the knees. Both sides will need to gradually condition their muscles and joints to avoid injuries. Traditionally, Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu sequences are short and repetitive and Dr. Yang added the 3rd and 4th parts of the sequence to challenge practitioners and include exciting movements.

Barehand vs Staff is an intermediate level sequence in the YMAA Shaolin curriculum. It was passed down to Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming (楊俊敏博士) from his White Crane teacher, Grandmaster Cheng, Gin-Gsao (曾金灶).

Making the Video

The sequence has always been one of my favorites and I particularly enjoyed training it with my classmate and now martial brother, Quentin. He's the most agile partner I've ever worked with and perhaps I have an inclination to swing a staff at someone from time to time. This was our go-to sequence for demonstrations. It's exciting to watch and easy for a non-martial audience to comprehend.

There was no instructional video on Barehand vs Staff so we decided to make one. The course was shot in the middle of our multi-year training programs at the YMAA Retreat Center. Looking back, given our tight schedule I'm amazed we were able to do it at all.

At the center, we learned the basics of media production to help shoot Dr. Yang's videos and produce our own. Our media teacher made countless 4-hour drives to us to teach us how to use her professional (translation: expensive) camera and the basics of the editing program Final Cut Pro. She lent us her lighting and audio equipment and donated computers and hard drives. She must have really liked us. You can hear her constructive comments in our Behind the Scenes video.

Without formal training, we learned the roles of presenter/talent, writer, storyboard artist, director, camera operator, audio, lighting, editor – jobs which are further split up among entire departments in professional settings. (Having worked on a major motion picture, I saw over hundred crew members on set which was only a fraction of the total crew.) Luckily, our classmates assisted us so we only had 3ish jobs at a time.

When producing martial arts instructional videos, the talent does not usually have a media production background and vice versa. Quentin and I are unique in that we have a bit of both. Additionally, not only are we teachers but we're also students. A solid presentation will take into account not just how an instructor teaches but also how a student learns. I can instruct you all day but if you haven't learned anything in the end, I'm not a teacher.

First, we broke the material down into fundamentals, conditioning drills, partner drills, and sequence techniques. Then we determined the types of shots we wanted for each – long shot, medium shot, close up, static, movement, etc… It's easier to shoot everything as a long shot (full body in view) but boring to watch and details may be missed. We opted to include a variety of shots – all of which took additional time to plan and shoot.

The great outdoors can be a magnificent background. It can also subject your production to uncontrollable forces of nature including fog, wind, harsh sunlight, rain, planes flying overhead and clucking chickens. The four-day shoot was grueling with many interruptions. While it's difficult to correct the lighting and color in post-production, the changing background makes the program more visually interesting and acts as another character.

After production wrapped, I simply could not make the time to sort through 200 GB of footage and sit down for a hundred hours to edit this beast. Life took over and the project sat in the vault until 6 years later. Looking through the footage, I noted what I would've done differently – certain shots, my physical appearance, presentation, the list goes on. Quentin and I are both introverts and if our delivery was the weakest link, I'll take it.

On the flip side, I now have more confidence and teaching experience. I know what I want in the final product. I have a more critical eye when watching videos and pay more attention to the direction and editing choices. Once I relearned how to edit, I went full steam and finished the majority of the project in a month.

Martial artists, artists, and perfectionists are never completely satisfied with their work. We have to start somewhere to go elsewhere.

(Personal note: Quentin, thank you for doing this with me. I'm proud of us! Special thanks to our crew for helping us make this a reality. Our gratitude goes to Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming and Grandmaster Cheng, Gin-Gsao for teaching this beautiful art. Cheers, Michelle )

The above is an original article by Michelle Lin, author of Barehand vs. Staff stream, May 2023, by YMAA Publication Center, and instructor at YMAA Wu An in Newton, Mass.