A high-level internal art for powerful palms, good health, happiness, longevity, peak performance and spiritual joys.
Kungfu history is full of legends about masters with extraordinary abilities and powers, beyond that of ordinary folk. Like masters of Cotton Palm, who with the lightest of touch could injure or kill a man. Stories of ‘the king of iron palm’ - Sifu Gu Ru Zhang, who killed a horse with a slap of his hand and could smash a pile of bricks with his palm strike.
Whilst these stories are often exciting and fascinating, many people question their authenticity.
One of the arts that fall into this category is “Cotton Palm”. An internal method of developing tremendous power that can be used to enhance martial ability, improved health, happiness, longevity and cultivate the spirit.
How can one art do so much? To know this we need to go back to the beginning of what we now know as Shaolin Kungfu.
History of Cotton Palm
The history of Cotton Palm cannot be traced to a single person, however we can be sure that its roots can be traced back to the Shaolin Temple and later the founder of Taijiquan – Zhang San Feng. Below is a list of masters or styles linked to the development of Cotton Palm.
Bodhidharma (Da Mo) 527AD
Upon finding the monks at the Shaolin Temple too weak and sickly to meditate and practice for long periods Da Mo taught them a variety of exercises. These included other arts, which in turn became the foundation set from which many others sets later developed. In addition to these exercises Da Mo left behind two important manuals: The Yi Gin Ching (Muscle Metamorphosis) and Shii Soei Ching (The Art of Cleansing). The Yi Gin Ching set out a number of Chi Training and Breathing exercises. Today this is a classic document for development of internal force. In our school we know these as Sinew Metamorphosis and Bone Marrow Cleansing.
Shaolin Cosmos Qigong, the type of Qigong we practice, includes the Eighteen Lohan patterns. One of these patterns is Pushing Mountains. Through Pushing Mountains one can develop Cosmos Palm. Cotton Palm likely evolved from Cosmos Palm, probably through Zhang San Feng’s development of the arts.
Zhang San Feng 960-1279 AD.
Zhang San Feng, the patriarch of Taijiquan, and regarded as the founder of internal Kungfu, is known to have developed Wu Tang Kungfu, combining physical, energy, mind as one single method of training. Previous to this the Kungfu was trained at a physical level to develop the body, Qigong or Neigong was practiced to train energy and meditation (Chan) separately for mind training.
The following provides an insight to the level and experience Zhang San Feng reached; He described life like that of ‘flowing water, floating clouds, gentle breeze, swaying willows’. His goal was to become an immortal, which he achieved.
This would be very different to how a Shaolin Kungfu practitioner would have likely described their experience, prior to reaching a high internal level.
Zhang San Feng’s achievements and training methods have been described as the pinnacle of Shaolin Kungfu. Through his training at the Shaolin Temple he would have known both the internal and external training methods of developing internal power (Chi). His description of life as flowing water and the information within the Taijiquan Treatise, help us understand and experience flowing force – a key aspect of developing Cotton Palm force.
Five Ancestors School 1280-1368 AD.
During this period Kungfu had developed and spread over country and had established seventy-two specialized arts in Shaolin Kung Fu, including Cotton Palm.
It was also during this time and development that a Shaolin disciple and Kungfu expert, Pai Yi Foong, feared that the specialization of Kungfu might mean that Shaolin Kungfu as a whole could be lost, and instead become small specialized segments. So he arranged a meeting for the Shaolin experts to come together and demonstrate their arts and exchange views on one another’s good points. From this five masters were grouped together to combine their styles of Kungfu and work out a new style of Kungfu – this became the ‘Five Ancestors Kungfu’. The five styles that made up this school are:
- Da Mo Style – ‘Chi’ Training
- White Crane Style – Mind Concentration
- Lohan Style – Body Position
- Tai Chu Style (Emperor’s Style) – Accurate positions
- Tah Shen Style (Monkey Style) – Agility
Praying Mantis 1368-1664 AD
The Cotton palm can be found in this style, first developed by Wang Lang (Shaolin Disciple). A Taoist Master Shen Xiao, then preserved and spread the art. So it was founded by a secular disciple, developed by Buddhist monks and popularized by Taoists Priest. The Cotton Palm set in Praying Mantis is called Mien Chang in Chinese. It is relatively “hard” compared to Wudang Cotton Palm.
Southern Shaolin 1664-1912
During this time Venerable Chee Seen (One of the Five Elders) was the Abbot of the Temple, and trained many great masters like Venerable Harng Yein, Hoong Hei Koon and Luk Ah Choy. Pak Mei, a Kungfu genius and senior classmate of Chee Seen, was known amongst many things for his Cotton Art. (Another notable master during this time was a Shaolin Nun, Ng Mui – famous for her Flower Set and teacher of Yim Wing Choon).
Sifu Chee Kim Thong 1920-2001
Sifu Chee Kim Thong was regarded during his lifetime as a living treasure of the People’s Republic of China. A classmate of Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit once told him that they had accidently entered the room of their Sifu while they were travelling, and saw Sifu Chee Kim Thong extinguish a line of candles, except one in a line, with a movement of his finger. Then he lit the candles up again from the burning candle with a reverse movement of his finger.
Here is a video performance by Sifu Chee Kim Thong in 1965 (Kindly uploaded by Chris Murray)
In our school Cotton Palm belongs to the branch of Energy Cultivation called Neigong, or advanced Qigong. As with all of our Kungfu training it includes Qigong training. Cotton Palm as an internal art it is soft and flowing. This type of training is ‘Yin’, in contrast to harder types of palm training, like Iron Palm, which would be ‘Yang’.
There are of course many types of Palm training or techniques, some hard, some soft. In the 72 Arts of Shaolin you will find palm training techniques such as ‘Cinnabar Palm (Zhu Sha Zhang). This palm technique is also a soft Kungfu, as it trains the inner power (Chi) and belongs to the category of ‘Yin’. It is also known as ‘The Palm of Plum Blossom’ (Mei Hua Zhang) and ‘Palm of Red Sand’ (Hong Sha Zhang) and in our school - Cosmos Palm. This has also been referred to as ‘Cotton Palm’; although the skill developed may be similar it is a mistake, as the training methods are different. Also, Cotton Palm was likely developed later.
It has also been described that the ‘red palm’ is a result of rubbing red sand between the palms, as a training method. Whilst practitioners may have rubbed sand between their hands I believe this is a mistaken description of the reason the hands are red. In my experience training the internal arts the red palm is a result of Chi flowing to the hands. Of course being able to develop Chi, and summon it at will, was a closely guarded secret back then. Of course if you hit or rub something with your palms they are likely to become red also.
The outcome of ‘Cinnabar Palm’ is that with the slightest of touches, the master of this technique will cause an ‘internal injury’ to an opponent, without leaving any external sign. The outcome of training Cotton Palm is said to be the same. (Although I cannot claim to have reached the level where the slightest of touches will injury an opponent. My wife and children are happy about this, as are my clients).
It is said the training method for Cinnabar Palm is first start by rubbing sand between your palms. After sometime change the sand for iron shots, then iron balls as you progress. After you are able to move the iron balls without touching them you have mastered the technique.
If a person followed this method, however, they would not develop Cinnabar Palm, but likely to damage their hands and lose their function. The reason for this is “chi kei phiew pat chi kei lui” (Cantonese pronunciation), which literally means “knowing the surface, but not knowing the inside”. This is still a big problem for many who try to develop high-level skills – they lack the fundamental understanding and training of developing internal force.
The Seventy Two Shaolin Arts, by Jin Jing Zhong, say ‘one who is in command of this Gungfu need not touch the enemy with hands. A strike with the palm at some distance and the enemy is severely injured and will surely die in 10-15 days, or even several hours.
This type of training is different to how we develop Cosmos Palm and Cotton Palm in our school, which is through the development of flowing Chi.
In comparison Cosmos Palm is harder than Cotton Palm, which is soft and flowing. Both Cosmos Palm and Cotton Palm derive their energy from the Cosmos.
Besides having powerful and flexible palms for combat, Cotton Palm contributes greatly to good health, vitality, longevity, peak performance and spiritual joys.
How does Wudang Cotton Palm give so many wonderful benefits in a short time and at a high level? The chi flow in the practice of Wudang Cotton Palm gives good health, vitality and longevity when blockage is cleared by chi flow. When the chi flow is vigorous, he has vitality. When he has accumulated a lot of chi from his chi flow, he has longevity.
Wudang Cotton Palm develops mental clarity and internal force, which in turn contributes to peak performance. The chi flow in his practice of Wudang Cotton Palm opens his heart and sets his spirit free, giving him peace, happiness and freedom.
In Kungfu terms a practitioner of Wudang Cotton Palm can develop tremendous internal force. Not only is the flow of energy spread throughout the body, it can also be used effortlessly in combat to great effect.
Cotton Palm can also be used in healing. However, unless the practitioner is already trained in the healing arts, he may cause more harm than good. A trained healer or therapist can use the Cotton Palm to further enhance their own practice on a number of levels – greater sensitivity, internal awareness, clarity of mind, greater self health, increased energy and ability to clear blockages.
Cotton Palm is a soft internal Kungfu. Therefore, to master Cotton Palm the practitioner needs the skill of ‘Chi Flow’. Chi Flow is a skill developed by training genuine Chi Kung (Qigong). Chi Kung is ‘The Art of Energy’.
When Sifu Wong Kiew Kit learnt Kungfu in the school of Chee Kim Thong he was often told:
“mg meng yong lak” which in Fujian dialect means “not use Strength”.
Which is in contrast to when he learnt Hoong Ka Kungfu from Uncle Righteousness, who often told him:
“yong lek, yong lek”, which is a Cantonese way of saying “use strength, use strength”.
However, when Sifu Wong Kiew Kit first sparred with his Wuzuquan brothers, who practiced soft flowing force, his force was nowhere.
So how does a person develop flowing force by practicing Kungfu?
Let’s look at some history of Kungfu again to find out.
When a person develops the skill of generating energy flow through their Qigong/Kungfu practice, they can then use this skill to get energy to flow in movement, like in Wudang Taijiquan.
(It should be noted here that the use of the word ‘Kungfu’ describes both Shaolin and Wudang Kung Fu. People are also more familiar with the term Tai Chi Chuan/Taijiquan than Wudang Kung Fu. For the purposes of this paper ‘Kungfu’ includes all of the above styles and types)
Would the Shaolin Monks have developed Cotton Palm?
Shaolin Kungfu has often been referred to as ‘external kungfu’ and Kungfu taught at the Wudang Mountain as ‘internal Kungfu’. Whilst it is a convenient reference for some it is not an accurate description. It is however reasonable to assume that some of Shaolin Monks who trained at the Shaolin Temple would have only trained in external hard styles of Kungfu, and not trained the internal aspects of the arts, which included energy (chi) and mind (shen) training. From what we understand, the internal aspects of developing energy for Kungfu were reserved for more advanced practitioners. Further, inner chamber disciples were taught more secretive training methods that would have involved mind, body and energy training. The ‘Inner Chamber Disciples’ were taught in the Bodhidharma Chamber. It was in this chamber where the top secrets were taught, by transmission of heart.
Traditionally at the Shaolin Temple, one would first learn the external aspects of Kungfu and body strengthening and conditioning. After a period of time, which could be years, a practitioner may be taught internal methods for developing energy. It is likely that they would have developed Cosmos Palm, but not Cotton Palm.
However, Cotton Palm can be traced back to one of the Kungfu experts who trained at the Shaolin Temple - Zhang San Feng. After reaching a high level of Kungfu he left the Shaolin Temple to work on his cultivation. It was during this time that he combined his knowledge and skills of Kungfu, Qigong and meditation into one single practice. This type of practice is known as ‘Triple Cultivation’. Whereas at the Shaolin Temple a person would practice Kungfu as the physical aspect of training, Qigong for developing energy and meditation for training the mind.
Using the method of ‘triple cultivation’ Zhang San Feng was able to generate a flow of energy through movement and mind. So it is likely that the Art of Cotton Palm was developed or produced as a result of Zhang San Feng using such methods as Cloud Hands and Waving Sleeves, which form part of our practice of Taijiquan. A person who is trained in Cosmos Palm will not spontaneously develop Cotton Palm.
By training Kungfu using ‘Triple Cultivation’ one is able to develop tremendous power, seemingly effortless. In our school, Shaolin Wahnam, we practice the internal training methods for palm training, which includes training of form, mind, and energy in one single practice. The ‘flowing force’ is an important key to unlocking Cotton Palm Force.
The best way to develop Cotton Palm Force is to practice the Wudang Cotton Palm Set and understand the underlying philosophy and training methods.
Wudang Cotton Palm is a marvellous set, demonstrated here by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit.