The Bak Mei fighter never makes the first move. He sits in wait, preparing to use soft and relaxed movements against his opponent’s attacks.
You are unlikely to meet a practitioner of this art at a competition or local fitness club. But if you do, ask him many questions. Bak Mei (pronounced 'Bock May') kung fu is a rare and pragmatic fighting style.
History of the Art
Bak Mei means "white eyebrow," and was the name of a Taoist monk in China's Canton province, during the Qing Dynasty. According to popular legend, Bak Mei developed his fighting style at the Shaolin Temple on Sung San Mountain. At a later date, he brought his style to Mount Ngor Mei (O-Mei Mountain) where he continued to refine his art. The style remained a denizen of the temples and families of Southern China for centuries, only recently to have gained a minor degree of fame within the martial arts community. Like other Chinese arts, it now can be found in several nations across the globe. This proliferation and global enlightenment regarding the art was brought about by factors such as the freer flow of information, the prominence of Chinese communities across the world, and the weakening of the oppressive Communist government in China.
Bak Mei is a close-range fighting system. The stances are low, but not extreme (lower than those of a Wing Chun practitioner, but not as extreme as other arts such as Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar). Like all good kung fu styles, the hand techniques of Bak Mei are soft, floating and sensitive until the time of impact. Footwork is conservative and precisely measured.
The Bak Mei fighter never makes the first move. He sits in wait, preparing to use soft and relaxed movements against his opponent's attacks. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, he transitions from soft to hard - releasing fast and focused attacks to his opponent's weak spots. The method of power generation and footwork patterns allow the Bak Mei practitioner to attack from uncomfortably close range, with very little distance between his fist and its intended target. Coordinating the practitioner's timing, footwork, back, chest and shoulder motions generates power.
Bak Mei's power is often referred to as "scared power" (geing jak jing). Using mostly the hips (and feet to a lesser degree), the practitioner torques his waist to generate a whipping motion - back and forth - as the Bak Mei stylist fights. Bak Mei fighters also employ special esoteric skills and qigong practices, which are generally taught in the later stages of training. These skills have fascinating names such as "reverse breathing" (an advanced internal practice) and "cotton belly" (similar to Yang Taiji's peng movement). They also make use of iron body training for the more advanced students, as do many traditional kung fu schools. The curriculum includes an arsenal of low, pragmatic kicks - and even ground-fighting techniques!
Bak Mei's weapons curriculum include many traditional Southern Chinese weapons including the staff, spear, trident, doubled-edged sword and butterfly knives (the sort that Wing Chun practitioners use, which resembles a short sword, not the pocket knife).
Flight of the Phoenix
The trademark technique of White Eyebrow is its phoenix eye fist. While other kung fu styles also utilize this hand positioning (Southern Praying Mantis uses it extensively), White Eyebrow kung fu uses this fist exclusively - it's the only closed-hand configuration in the system! The phoenix eye fist is formed like a standard fist, except the knuckle of the index finger is extended. The force of the punch is focused into the single knuckle. And that single knuckle is used to strike potentially damaging target areas.
The phoenix eye fist is difficult to use effectively, and takes years of practice to perfect. The fist is rarely more than six inches away from its target. It drills into the target, using the power generated by the practitioner's hips. Bak Mei's phoenix eye targets the chi meridians, channels through which one's life force is distributed throughout the body (such as the temple or sternum). The fist corkscrews into the surface of the skin, and then retracts - twisting as it exits. When performed by an experienced stylist, this action does far more damage than if the fist is merely driven straight through the target area.
Like most traditional martial arts, the system is cataloged through a series of empty handsets or forms - prearranged sequences of fighting techniques and movements that vary in difficulty. Depending on the lineage of the instructor (who his instructor was, traced back to the founder of the system), the sets vary. Some schools teach as few as two empty handsets, others as many as 40! The number of sets taught in a particular school is not a good measure of the student's skill level, however - more important is the student's ability to apply the techniques effectively in a fighting situation. Some popular Bak Mei sets include Gow Bo Toi, Sup Bot Gwai Sao and Sam Chien Kuen. The forms are either executed with full power and speed, as they would be applied in combat, or slow and relaxed (much like most Tai Chi practice) in order to perfect the specific body movements necessary to perform the techniques properly.
Breathing, timing and qigong practice are all fundamental components of Bak Mei training. Body movements must be coordinated and perfectly executed. No part of the Bak Mei fighter's body moves alone - stepping and hand movements are perfectly coordinated. The art's training and fighting methods are an interesting combination of internal and external practice, due to the art's Taoist and Buddhist roots. All traditional schools of Bak Mei incorporate free sparring as part of their training. No kung fu training can be effective without some form of free fighting.
Songs and Poems
Many Southern Chinese kung fu styles have songs or poems incorporated into the system. These verses give insight, motivation and guidance to students of the fighting system. Some poems refer to specific techniques or skills, others about the fighting concepts of the art, and some are about the art in general. The following is an example of a Bak Mei training verse:
The dragon is glorious in its perception
The snake has poison in its heart
The crane sours in its intention
They also give clues about the art's history and origins. Though many of these verses are guardedly kept within the practitioner of the system, some practitioners freely communicate all of their knowledge in the interest of keeping the art alive. As with many kung fu styles, what is not passed on to others will die with the teacher.
Bak Mei Today
White Eyebrow is one of those arts that many long-term martial artists have heard of, but nobody really knows much about. This is a dangerous combination that can lead to misinformation and poor instruction, whether intentional or not. But practice of the art is growing, and its practitioners are communicating more freely and openly than ever. Bak Mei is a highly regarded style that produces strong fighters. And its dedicated practitioners will ensure that it remains such long after its current masters are no longer able to teach.