San Soo » Five Families


Five families

As explained here, the expression Kung Fu San Soo, is more of a moniker describing the training and fighting method of the art rather than the ‘style’ of the art. This is why it’s so difficult to categorize the art to others familiar with Chinese martial art ‘styles’. They’re expecting a traditional name that represents a family, a style, or lineage like Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, Baguazhang, Hung Gar, Fut Gar, White Crane, Wing Chun, or Choy Li Fut. As explained in the History section, legend and some historians hold that the dynamic response fighting method and the “mapping of spatial, temporal, and energetic characteristics of the battlefield to human physiological structure” were developed in the Southern Shaolin Temple of Lin Quan Yuan in Fujian.

But the historic name of the art of Kung Fu San Soo is Choy Li Ho Fut Hung Ga in Cantonese, or Five Families, said to be traceable to Jee Sin (Yale Cantonese, Zhi Shan in Mandarin), a member of the so called Kung Fu Five Elders. In Hoisanese it’s pronounced Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung, and in Pinyin it’s Cai Li He Fo Xiong. From Cai Jia, Li Jia, He Jia, Fo Jia, Xiong Jia, we end up with the abbreviated Pinyin Gong Fu San Shou Cailihefoxiongjia, or Kung Fu San Soo, Five Family Martial Art, based on the Five Family Elders. That's how the typical person fluent in modern Pinyin Chinese would understand it. The Five Family Elders are not to be confused with the five animals, or the Kung Fu Five Founders, or the Tian Di Hui Triad Five Elders. And although these heritages are based on legend, they very likely containing significant truths, and almost certainly overlap.

Given the names handed down by Chan Siu Dek, for better or worse, the Americanized art known as Kung Fu San Soo, as Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung, is almost certainly descended from and associated with the tough, infamous Triad Lineage. It is possible, that Chan Siu Dek may have been a "Red Pole" enforcer, a "426" (a fighter), at least at some point in his life. If not, then possibly the Hop Sing Tong equvalent. You can learn something more about the Five Family Names here.

Strictly speaking, in modern Kung Fu San Soo, as Choy Li Ho Fut Hung (Cantonese), only Choy, Li, and Ho refer to actual surname family lineages. Fo roughly means Buddhist psychology, but more broadly applies to a practice sometimes called Buddha Palm, employing open hand and soft techniques, and is associated with the style known as Fut Gar (Cantonese, Fo Jia in Mandarin). Hung can be a family surname, and in this instance is the same name as Chan Siu Dek's great uncle, Chan Siu Hung. it can also mean heroic, or it strong, and it's our opinion that all these definitions historically relate to Kung Fu San soo. But in practice it applies to dynamic strength training along with some of the methods of the style known as Hung Gar (Cantonese).

Now this may be an oversimplification, but serves as a basic way of understanding the terms as we presently understand them. Each of the five names in Choy Li Ho Fut Hung in Cantonese, or Cailihefoxiong in Mandarin, describe five methods of fighting specialization. But according to some historians, legend holds that the specializations emerged as associations with five actual historic families.

Between the third century and the thirteenth century, most of the Chinese martial arts as we know them today probably underwent some developed in the Shaolin Temples, both in the North and the South, and in Taoist Wudang Temples in the North. Briefly explained, legend holds that the Shaolin arts enjoyed the support of five important families. By some accounts, for possibly as long as 1000 years, five historic families actually patronized the Sholin with donations of money and property.

How the family names are spelled or pronounced in English depends on the Chinese dialect one employs to Romanize them. They were Choy (Tsoi, Choi, Cai); Li (Lay, Lee); Mo (Mok); Lau (Lui) ; and Hung (Xiong). Each name was followed by the word ‘family', Ga in Cantonese, or Jia in Mandarin. Each of the five benefactor families became synonymous with a fighting specialty.

  • Choy Ga (Cai Jia) concentrated on hand blows
  • Li Ga (Li Jia) concentrated on footwork, balance and leg attacks
  • Mo Ga (Mok Jia) concentrated on short hand strikes, low kicks and staff techniques
  • Lau Ga (Lui Jia) concentrated on short to middle arm strikes stressing flowery open hand techniques
  • Hung Ga (Xiong Jia) concentrated on dynamic tension exercise. low and wide open forms.


With the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the fighting families, the Shaolin Monks, and the trained fighters, formed secret allegiances to oppose the new Qing Dynasty, or the Manchurians. The rebellion against the Qing Dynasty continued until its fall in 1911. But in 1760 the Qing burned the larger temples and scattered the occupants.

During the mid eighteenth century, the legendary Hongmen (Hung Men) of the Tian Di Hui began to assert that their society, the Hung Fa Wui or Red Flower Society, was born of an alliance between Ming loyalists and five survivors of the destruction of the southern Shaolin Temple at Fujian, the Triad Five Elders. They claimed this compact was formed at the Hung Fa Ting, or Vast or Red Flower Pavilion, where they swore themselves to "overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming". This is the symbolic meaning of the hand salute used by most southern Chinese martial arts, including Kung Fu San Soo, the one you see just at your left.

From the lineage of Kung Fu San Soo, Hung Sing Legend has it that only a few monks survived the southern temple. Some accounts hold six, and some five, and although historians often acknowledge several of the individuals having really existed, they also usually hold the details of these accounts to be largely undocumentable, and although probably containing a great deal of truth, somewhat romanticized stories.

But the widely popular legend of five monks is the most broadly notable among the greater Nánquán Chinese arts. They are sometimes called the Five Family Elders, and legend holds that each one of these monks represented one of the original five fighting family specialties. As we've noted, there are at least three versions: the Triad Five Elders; the Kung Fu Five Elders, and the Five Family Elders. It's easy for anyone to find this all confusing, and various groups and lineages seem to cling to their respective favorites. It's our opinion that they all spring from a common source and contain a great deal of truth.

The reality is that there were probably several individuals who did survive the burning of the temples, individuals whose skills may have in fact been modified in the temples during the 15th and 16th centuries, before their destruction, as a method to fight the Qing, and forming the fighting and training method we find in many of the southern arts, including the one we know today as Kung Fu San Soo. One of the legendary five in the Kung Fu San Soo background is held to have specialized in a Northern Style (Chángquán), and four specialized in Southern Styles (Nánquán). It was in response to these extremely efficient fighting methods, the same that are employed today in Kung Fu San Soo training, that the Qing decided to simply raze the temples.

A number of modern systems emerged during this underground period, systems like Hung Gar, Mok Gar, Fut Gar, Choi Gar, Li Gar, White Crane, Wing Chun, and Choy Li Fut. The latter forms at least a parallel and overlaping lineage of Kung Fu San Soo. Choy Li Fut was founded by Chan Heung, a person we hold to be the adoptive great grandfather of the founder of American Kung Fu San Soo, Chan Siu Dek, the person the world knew best as Jimmy H. Woo. Kung Fu San Soo oral tradition holds that one of his ancestors emerged from the inner sanctum of the Shaolin temple system, into the secular world, with two traditional training books preserved from one of the destroyed temples.

From the oral tradition left behind by Chan Siu Dek, Kung Fu San Soo holds the five families to be those in the list below. The very best explanations we know of can be found here. Go to the link. It almost perfectly explains the five family interpretation of Kung Fu San Soo as five branches of specific martial study, along with the evolution and association of the family names of the South Chinese Martial Arts where Kung Fu San Soo clearly fits.

  • Tsai Ga Kuen Tao (Cai Jia): Short range techniques
  • Li Ga Mah (Li Jia): Leg techniques and balance
  • Hoc, Haw, Ho Ga Pai (He Jia): Pressure, nerve and acupuncture points, Chin Na seizing and leverage techniques
  • Fut Ga Jerung (Fo jia): Buddha Palm; open hand and soft techniques, fight psychology
  • Hung Ga (Xiong Jia): Dynamic tension exercise. Low and wide open forms.

One Kung Fu San Soo source suggests that Chan Heung changed the names of the five families to honor his teachers and the Buddhist faith to these names, but we've found little evidence supporting the addition of the Ho and Hung names to traditional Choy Li fut. The spelling variations are all just efforts to pronounce the same Chinese calligraphic word in English. We are told by some that Chan Siu Dek held that the longer five family name was shortened to Choy Li Fut (Tsoi Li Fut, Choy Lee Fat, Cai Li Fo). And Chan Siu Dek told most that his family art, Village Style Choy Li Fut, or combat Choy Li Fut as Kung Fu San Soo, was only a cousin to classical Choy Li Fut, telling us that Kung Fu San Soo is best described as "Choy Li Ho". Chan Siu Dek used different combinations himself to represent his interpretation of his art, at different stages of his career as a Sifu, or master teacher. At various times he used Choy Li Ho, Choy Li Ho Fut, Choi Li Fut Hung, and Choy Li Ho Fut Hung, on ranking certificates. For example, the founder of the Sonora School is Rusty Wallace. He's a second generation master and his certificate is signed by Bill Lasiter, but the calligraphy was hand inked by Chan Siu Dek and only includes Choy, Li, Ho, and Fut. On it we find the calligraphic character for 'Ho' replacing the more popular "Mok", and the Hung character is omitted completely. And on the official International Kung Fu San Soo website homepage around his photograph, we see in Chan Siu Dek's own hand, the variation Choy Li Fut Hung.

Chan Siu Dek used the Chinese calligraphic character to represent the family of Ho (Haw), replacing the Mok character more often used by other schools and lineages tracing their origins to the Five Families. As we noted above, at least one Kung Fu San Soo source attributes the change to Choy Li Fut founder, Chan Heung. But the only place this character and lineage shows up very well in our research in the Nánquán arts is through the recently deceased Segung Haw (Ho), Churng of the Fujian Hung Sing Choy Li Fut school, and through the lineage of one of it’s descendant schools in San Francisco.

It is our understanding that When Kung Fu San Soo reseachers recently contacted Haw(Ho), Cherk-Wah, son of Haw (Ho), Churng, in Fujian, even using a knowledgeable Chinese interpreter, he was disinclined to speak on the historic connection between American Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung, and the Hung Sing lineage, in keeping with the traditional secrecy of this lineage and the disinclination to fraternize closely with ousiders, especially westerners. So we know very little about this characterization or why Chan Siu Dek utilized it, except that we do find legitimate assertions that he used to visit the San Francisco Hung Sing school. Chan Siu Dek also used the Heroic Victory character for Hung, which was the same character used in his great uncle’s name and Hung Sing training lineage. It is not the same Hung character used to describe the Hung Fa Wui, although we're reasonably conviced that the former is integrally connected with the latter.

Kung Fu San Soo is an extremely efficient fighting and training methodology developed over many centuries, probably refined in the Southern Shaolin Temple of Fujian, and employed the medieval Five Family specialties. After the burning of the major temples, the practice went deeply underground, became surrounded by mystery, folklore, and secret societies, and migrated into smaller temples. From one or more of these temples (some accounts hold as many as five), on the Pearl River Delta in Taishan, in a village oral accounts hold as Pong Hong, the Kung Fu San Soo training and fighting method of the art of Choy Li Ho Fut Hung in Cantonese, or Cailihefoxiong in Mandarin, survived. The American lienage of this fighting system, with its characteristic body coiling 'accent' and bold 'style' followed through the personal and family training of Chan Siu Dek. While it has many other branches in nearby Chinese arts, this is the family lineage Chan Siu Dek established in America.

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