San Soo » Kung Fu San Soo
Kung Fu San Soo is descended from the renowned Chinese Shaolin disciplines. It is not a sport, but a fluid fight training system of serious combat techniques based on powerful attacks directed to the vital points of the body.
The roots of Kung Fu San Soo lie in the South Chinese martial art known as Choy Li Fut, or Califoquan. Founded in 1836, Choy Li Fut combined the long Northern styles with fast tight Southern styles, and blended the mental aspect of the internal styles with the hard fighting external styles. Bruce Lee said it was the best defense against multiple attackers.
Kung Fu San Soo was first taught to non-Chinese in the US by Chen Siu Dek (Cantonese), under the anglicized name Jimmy H. Woo. His school motto was, "You can take my life but not my confidence". Larger than life and known as "Jimmy the Fighter", he grew up studying Choy Li Fut in Taishan China, with a significant concentration on the interpretation his own family placed on the practical fighting aspect. Jimmy Woo called his Americanized family art Choy Li Ho Fut Hung Ga, or Cailihafoxiongjia.
Americanized Kung Fu San Soo is a broad discipline encompassing all five of the most famous South Chinese family arts of Hung, Lau, Choy, Lee, and Mok. It cuts to the chase, instructing even new students not only in a foundation of martial basics, free and weapons forms, and practical techniques, but semi-contact free fight training called San Shou or San Soo, anglicized to the simple term "working out" for Americans by Chan Siu Dek. Known in Mandarin as Kung Fu San Shou, loosely meaning "formless hands", it is widely practiced in a very restricted sporting venue, and in unrestricted forms by the Chinese Special Forces. Kung Fu San Soo is the Cantonese pronunciation, and the Americanized version is one of the few Chinese martial disciplines in existence to aggressively teach the semi-contact, unlimited "no holds barred" workout version to civilians.
The workout techniques of Kung Fu San Soo are designed to change instantly to suit any situation. They are based on the "Five Family" methods of punches (choy ga), leg and foot strikes (li ga), chin na leverages and pressure points (ho ga), the spiritual psychology of fighting (fut ga), and physical power (hung ga). They also include the extremely fast throwing techniques of Shuaijiao. For health, balance, and spiritual development, the free forms of San Soo are related to Taijiquan, popularized throughout the world as Tai Chi Chuan.
But Kung Fu San Soo isn't easily objectified, because of its complex background and Americanized context. There's a bit more to it.
A True Combat Art
Kung Fu San Soo is a practical Chinese combat martial training system. In modern implementation, it's something like modern military hand to hand combat training. It was historically a true warrior's discipline of the highest caliber, a reality based combat fighting system, and the training ideology through its Western lineages remains so to this day. Possibly one of the most reasonable and objective descriptions of the art, although oversimplified and incomplete, may be the attempt made by objective analysts observing Kung Fu San Soo by editors at World Black Belt Online. Its westernization was popularized in America by a fighter who immigrated under the name Jimmy H. Woo, a man who’s Cantonese family name was actually Chan Siu Dek (Chen Shou Jue in Mandarin, Zhen She De in Pinyin, Chin Siu Dek in Hoisanese).
Kung Fu San Soo is more of a complex Chinese fight skill training lineage, than a single martial art ‘style’. Some say it’s one of the most complete and effective martial arts in existence, a notable example of one of the original “mixed martial arts”. Inside Kung Fu Magazine called it, "Legendary and devastating... A pure Chinese fighting art that has few equals."
If we were to categorize the STYLE of the art popularly known in America as Kung Fu San Soo, it would best be reflected by the actual name, or the shortened title of the art, Tsoi Li Ho, in the Taishan accent of the Cantonese Chinese dialect. English pronounciations vary, depending on the Chinese dialect source, including Tsoi Li Ho, Toy Li Haw, Choi Li Ho, and Cai Li Fo. The Chinese caligraphic characters remain the same for all. Chan Siu Dek explains that Tsoi Li Ho is the name of the art in this YouTube Video. At the 0:45 second point, he clearly says, "If people ask you what 'style' of Kung Fu San Soo you practice, [tell them] Tsoi Li Ho." Tsoi, Li, and Ho are three family surnames from the complete combat system, as Chan Siu Dek describes at the 4:20 second point toward the end of the above linked YouTube video, calling it Tsoi Li Ho Fut HUNG Ga. So the art is actually Tsoi Li Ho Fut Ga, but as it's most often known by the free fight training characteristics the Chinese call Kung Fu San Soo (Cantonese).
This system was developed and tested for more than three millennia on Chinese battlefields and in dark back alleys during violent disturbances, and in conflicts ranging from rebellions against local authorities or invading Western influences, to full blown national revolutions. It was even tested in public death match venues. Your life or mine. Survivors pretty much emerged “knowing their business”, as it were. Unlike many of the other descendant Chinese martial systems, most of them highly formalized, Kung Fu San Soo cuts to the chase, concentrating on quickly teaching individuals to fight effectively. It's built into its very history.
But it’s also based at least to a degree, and by it's historic background on the core integrity and gentle philosophy of the Shaolin Buddhist and earlier Taoist and Confucian ethical systems. Although it's largely a raw, tough art, typically taught tough and to the point, it's still integrally steeped in the ethics of Chinese martial Wu-De. Or at least it historically was, and in our opinion, some aspect of that tradition should continue. Accordingly, rolling all together, it’s often been called a “life changing art", and even "a complete way of life”. Still, as practiced through its American lineage, it lacks the typical formality of most other Chinese martial arts.
Classifying the Chinese martial arts seems to be a recent phenomenon, popularized during the past two hundred years, and not held by every historian to be foolproof. Still, classification serves to help us understand something about the identification of current groupings, families, and systems.
The broadest distinction of Chinese martial arts breaks down into Northern and Southern systems. Historically, five of the elements of Kung Fu San Soo are connected with the famous Five Families of the Nánquán, or Southern Fist martial styles, although Kung Fu San Soo practically and historically also includes elements of Chángquán (Beiquan), or Northern Fist styles. It's also held to contain historical elements of the Buddhist Shaolin Quan and the Taoist Wudang Quan martial backgrounds. So it’s a very complete art.
It consists of combining multiple fighting techniques into virtually infinite sequences. To the knowledgeable outside observer, the system breaks out into at least six major recognizable categories of Chinese fighting.
It's popularly categorized as an 'external' art, or Wài Jia, although it historically contains some elements of the 'internal' as well, or Nèi Jia. Tim Cartmel, who spent eleven years studying and fighting in China after obtaining his Kung Fu San Soo masters degree, explains the difference.
So San Soo is an offensive art designed to neutralize an opponent the instant that the opponent initiates aggressive behavior, even before if a dangerous threat is only implied. The core concept is to “attack the attacker”, and is therefore largely based on a surprise response. Yet while the response to an aggressor is brutally offensive in nature, and psychologically preemptive with no quarter offered toward a serious threat, Kung Fu San Soo can electively be reactive. So from that perspective it is therefore consistent with the historic Shaolin philosophy of measured response, of turning the violence of an aggressor back onto himself. Many historians believe that this Shaolin Buddhist fighting methodology evolved as monks developed ways to defend themselves against extremely serious, life threatening attacks by highwaymen and brigands.
The training focuses on simultaneous evasion and striking, either with the hands, the feet, or other body parts such as the forearms, elbows, knees, shins, or back of the legs, while reading opponent reaction and body language, and employing extremely fast combat throwing and/or joint breaking leverage techniques designed to disable the opponent by inflicting serious injury. This is why it is not well suited to sport fighting, and only practical for sporting applications when largely modified.
The fighting method of Kung Fu San Soo is based on principles of physics, human body dynamics, and fight psychology. It utilizes combined strikes, kicks, pinches, slaps, claws, chokes, gouges, bites, fast takedowns, and both slower joint manipulation by seizing and locking, and quick joint damaging leverages, in response to predictable body reactions from specific stimuli. Simply, San Soo practitioners basically expect a human body to predictably react when struck on a specific target.
In other words, if successfully struck in a delicate area of the face, a person will tend to guard high for at least a split second, opening up low targets. If struck in the liver, the groin, the knee, or stomped on the instep of the foot, he will tend to guard low, opening up high targets. If he finds a finger seized and about to break, he will attempt to pull it away. If he can't break the lock, he'll reach for it with the other hand, exposing targets.
Multiply this by hundreds of specific targets, with hundreds of possible strikes, kicks, throws, or leverages, from hundreds of angles, in a fluid set of boundless variables employed almost from the subconcious level, ad infinitum. It’s a lot like the way boxers train to employ combinations to the best possible opening or opportunity, but extended by training to include kicks, strikes, leverages, throws, gouges, bites, and more. That's the core concept of Kung Fu San Soo. As the student progresses, these openings become more and more evident as technique skills evolve through training, which itself produces fluid responses through an inner sense of intricate timing. The idealized goal is to incapacitate an opponent as quickly as possible, without even thinking about it.
Locking for submission is employed but not highly emphasized, unless training for security or policing. Instead, the idea is to injure and escape, or to altogether avoid the conflict in the first place.
Any sensible martial practitioners will tell you that there is little special magic in the fighting arts. Just technique, training, dedication, and desire. And that's largely true. But Kung Fu San Soo is in fact a magical art, by its very nature. Any successful magician will attempt to draw your attention to one area of three dimensional space, while manipulating something else in another, counting on the fact that human beings by their neuro-psychological makeup can rarely pay close attention to more than one area at a time. By inflicting as much pain and damage as possible to one area of an opponent, by using one of an infinite number of techniques in combination to set up and attack yet another, the method of Kung Fu San Soo literally consists of magical deception. It's not the only art do do so. All fighting arts do this in one way or another. Some arts use the check-kick, while Western boxers bob, feign, and jab. But with Kung Fu San Soo, it's almost the entire strategy.
The Kung Fu San Soo training system is actually the heart of Americanized Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung, and its most distinguishing characteristic. The system is taught like a language, which is very different from many of the more formal asian martial arts. This is perhaps the very best way to comprehend how the many, many dynamic techniques inherent in Kung Fu San Soo can be practially learned in a reasonable amount of time. While many arts teach techniqes and their applications through something like a set of catechisms, memorizing and learning one set at a time, then tested on them, Kung Fu San Soo teaches the way children are taught to speak.
To avoid becoming "lesson fighters", and to maximize skill acquisition speed, a characteristic again inherent in the very history of Southern Chinese combat training, techniques are taught like words, and application is taught like language syntax. So just as children learn to speak and express themselves very quickly, Kung Fu San Soo students pick up and begin to express the flowing fight dynamics of the entire system quite rapidly as well. Through two-man spontaneous semi-resistive, semi-contact sparring, fighters learn to visualize and respond to opportunities dynamically and quite naturally, much like the way a kitten learns to spar ofter a ball dangled from a string. It's not long before the kitten grows into a cat able to catch a bird right out of the air.
This training method of Kung Fu San Soo, as inherited from Chan Siu Dek, largely revolves around an ancient two man, semi-contact, free sparring system originally called San Sao or San Soo (Cantonese, San Shao in Mandarin). This is very likely where the Americanized art Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung gained its popular name, Kung Fu San Soo. Credible sources hold that it can be traced to the very old spontaneous two man form practice of Wudang Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan. One person attacks the other, and then reacts to the defense techniques the defender offers. The degree of contact and the roughness of the sparring varies from school to school and on how much experience the students have. Most Kung Fu San Soo schools call this mixed semi-contact and full contact cooperative sparring "working out", a convention passed down from Chan Siu Dek.
Resistive training sometimes exists, but clearly, techniques such as bone breaking maneuvers simply cannot be fully followed through in training. The obvious limitations of semi-resistive sparring, as opposed to full resistance fight training with an uncooperative opponent, has drawn some reasonable and constructive criticism from both outside the Kung Fu San Soo community, and within. Of course, historically, training completion occurred in battles, public "death matches", or in the streets, which is rarely possible these days. In an increasingly litigious society, even the liabilities of honest and unavoidable self defense are becoming more and more demanding. In some ways, you almost have to love the art for its own sake to pursue it, although throughout its history, all other things being equal, the effectiveness of this training methodology has consistently proven itself.
So it’s not an art that is a solely appropriate training for competitive sporting venues, and it lends itself much more to true combat and self defense. Like unrestricted training with sharpened Samurai swords or combat automatic pistols, it is not an art that easily proves itself in the sporting venues without washing itself pale. Nevertheless, there are important examples of San Soo fighters suggesting significant advantages of Kung Fu San Soo training even for competitive venues. It teaches a precision timing, a special psychology, accurate targeting, and an unpredictable fight flow that lend themselves to winning, at least when used in addition to other resisteve training specifically intended for sport fighting, training like the grappling arts, and stand up arts like western boxing, kickboxing, San Shou, and Muay Thai.
Perhaps the closest example of a sport fighter that employs at least a very limited but nevertheless important part of Kung Fu San Soo skill set might be Cung Le, who's San Shou Kung Fu venue evolved directly from the same source as ancient San Soo Kung Fu. And Kung Fu San Soo Master, Tim Cartmel, who's credentials also include advanced Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, Baguazhang, and a black belt in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, provides us with a philosophic view into the evolution of combative martial arts into modern amature and professional competitive venues.
But the original philosophy of Kung Fu San Soo set down by American founder Chan Siu Dek was to either win a confrontation at any cost, even at the expense of death if necessary, or avoid fighting altogether. He simply didn't want any of his fighters to cripple themselves psychologically or technically by training for limitations of any kind at all. He admonished his students, if a fight was unavoidable, not to test the opponent with a limited response, not to give even a millisecond of advantage. He'd say, "If a man attacks you, how do you know that man isn't trying to kill you?" Of course, he was talking about a person attacking in a darkened parking garage, NOT one attacking you in a sporting venue where all oponents have trained themselve to fight hard, but by contract, have agreed not to attempt to permanently injure or disable their opponents.
This set up a conflict that remains in the art today. Either compromise that psychology by cross training against non-cooperative opponents in limited venues and thereby gain clearly valuable but limited resistive fighting experience, or remain true to the historic your-life-or-mine core of the art of his ancestors, and either gain experience through underground fights which is precisely what many early American practitioners did or perhaps never know how well one might do against a resistive fighter.
Approached realistically, both extremes offer practical and time tested advantages and disadvantages. And of course as many nearly no-holds-barred venues have emerged since the death of Chan Siu Dek, some sporting, some way beyond sporting, no one really knows whether he might have supported students of Kung Fu San Soo fighting in those events.
We've heard from two seperate and trusted sources that he endorsed some of his best students in an event against Muay Thai fighters when that art was first introduced in America, even though the event never materialized. And we wonder how he would have responded to events like this. We know Kung Fu San Soo practitioners from the Bill Lasiter lineage who have successfully tested themselves in this particular venue, including Jeff Frater and Kyle Olsen. And we also know that Chan Siu Dek said, "don't make fun of or degrade another man's art...someday he might kill you with it," a very important point to keep in mind.
While it can be meaningfully argued that the lack of resistive training is a weakness, the unrestricted skill sets adopted by Kung Fu San Soo have consistently proven a practical advantage for thousands of years, all other things being equal. Some Kung Fu San Soo schools do practice some practical resistive training, including the Sonora School to a limited degree, but with great care.
And many veteran, high level Kung Fu San Soo practitioners, like Bill Lasiter, Chris McCune, the venerable Kathy Long ( five time World's Champion Kick Boxer), Lari Beebe, Ron Van Browning, Dave Hopkins, Jeff Frater, Kyle Olsen, Art Camacho, Tim Cartmel, and others, have cross trained and even competed in restistive technique fighting venues. So at least from their point of view there's something to be argued for those methods as well. And in most cases, these individuals should not be accused of abandoning their allegiance to Kung Fu San Soo or to corrupt the techniques, but rather to simply be attempting to advance their understanding and strengths in dealing with other fighting styles.
So like many things in life, it’s a tradeoff. Some individuals like to box, while others learn to competitively shoot combat pistols. Both are effective for fighting and defense. But clearly boxers can hammer it out with each other as they please with most of them surviving to tell about it, while modern pistol shooters are not likely to engage in too many unrestricted dueling standoffs. And for all the heated Internet discussion back and forth about resistive versus "deadly" non-resistive training and "you fight like you train" arguments, it's doubtful that many of the talkers on either side are likely to step forth and challenge one of the World Class combat pistol shooting champions to an armed, your-life-or-mine standoff to see who survives, for any amount of love or money. Those folks don't engage in resistive matches, but the point is, would you really want to get into a gunfight with one to prove yourself? So in a way, at least in concept, that is perhaps somewhat like the difference between MMA cage fighters, with all due respect to their great skills and abilities, and Kung Fu San Soo practitioners.
Still, while it's unrealistic to insist that any art is automatically so deadly in technique or psychological tactic as to be unbeatable, it's also probably safe to say that there are very few arts that teach combat fight combinations as completely or efficiently as Kung Fu San Soo, at least when learned from the better practioners. And while it's also not realistic even arrogant and foolish to insist that combat arts like Kung Fu San Soo are unbeatable because they employ non-sporting combat skills strictly intended to cause serious injury or death, it's also probably fair to argue that all other things being equal, any well trained sport fighter, no matter how good, would logically be more formidable in a life or death situation by the addition of Kung Fu San Soo training.
Because of its complexity and American lineage, it’s not an art that is easily categorized, especially by the Romanization of the name, Kung Fu San Soo. The name, as a schooled art, is not one that was commonly used to describe any of the formal martial ‘styles’ known to the Chinese, although through retro-assimilation, and typically with great misunderstanding, it's now beginning to appear in many lists of Chinese arts. It clearly comes from China, and contains hints and elements that greatly resemble other Chinese martial arts, including forms and ancient weapons training.
Most sources suggest that Kung Fu San Soo describes a completely unique art that began in a monestary in a village called Pong Hong, but we generally dissagree with this assertion. The basics of the art probably developed over a much longer period of time, and only a part even though a significant part of the American lineage broke free from the politically protected institutions into the secular world through the family of Chan Siu Dek. So we believe that our lineage, as Choy Li Ho, may have begun locally in Toisan, but with the modern training system that largely makes up the core of Kung Fu San Soo itself is older, beginning in the Lin Quan Yuan Southern Shaolin Temple during the 15th Century. The lineages of many other related popular Nánquán arts including White Crane, Hung Gar, Mok Gar, Fut Gar, Lama Pai, Hakka Quan, Wing Chun, and Choy Li Fut, share much of the same background and a similar history. Choy Li Fut even shares much of the same filial training lineage.
Some of the uncertainty about both descriptive terminology and history involves misunderstandings about how Kung Fu San Soo was popularly described by the founder of its American lineage, Chan Siu Dek. Descriptive understanding is further complicated by the fact that older Western Wade Giles translations have given way to modern Pinyin, the many dialects of Chinese, and the fact that Chan Siu Dek was Hoisanese and spoke English with a very thick accent. This left practitioners with an extremely confusing, almost comical array of mysteries to untangle.
But the phrase Kung Fu San Soo actually describes the training and the fighting methodology, not the 'style' of the art. If we try to define Kung Fu San Soo in English, we have to break it down. The Chinese calligraphy representing Kung Fu in Cantonese, or Gongfu in Mandarin, roughly translates as achievement, or accomplishment through motivation, self-discipline, and time. The literal translation is kung = work + fu = man. A person can develop Kung Fu in almost any aspect of life. Chan Siu Dek used to say it meant "working man" which created a great deal of confusion among students at El Monte, who in the early years of the school, usually knew very little about the Chinese language or Chinese martial history. But it's clearly not meant as a literal translation that might imply a blue collar worker, but rather one who aquires skill by working at a given craft or discipline. He further explained that the phrase, Kung Fu San Soo, was often used to describe a person who's work, or profession, was that of a fighter. Finally, he often said that San Soo simply means "hand to hand combat".
The term Kung Fu was not historically recognized as a means of describing proficiency in the martial arts, but is a recent Western application. A more traditional phrase describing the martial arts in China is ‘wushu’, usually defined as martial art. But the literal translation is wu = stop(ing), + shu = method, as in "method of stopping an aggressor," almost describing the art of Kung Fu San Soo itself, which "attacks the attacker". But even this term has been further modified to describe the flashy sport showmanship of non-combative modern demonstrative competition called Wushu in China today.
Using the term fist to describe a fighting method, style, or family, is common among Chinese. For example, as we've seen, Nánquán means Southern Fist. Sometimes the word hand is substituted for fist. In Cantonese, San Soo literally means, “scattered hand”. In Mandarin, it's San Shou, as san = scattered + shou = hand. It may have been used to describe the fighting techniques utilized by modern Kung Fu San Soo for millennia, although legend holds that the core art as passed by Chan Siu Dek was most likely created, or at least refined, during the early part of the Qing Dynasty in the Southern Shaolin Temple at Fujian. Historically the Chinese martial arts that evolved through the Shaolin temple system are known as Shaolin Fighting. As applied to Kung Fu San Soo, the phrase has come to describe a free form, unrehearsed fight training methodology some historians hold to be descended from the Taoist Wudang background. We are told by reputable Chinese Nánquán practitoners, that among the popular Chinese fighting arts, the term San Soo is used to describe the deconstruction of traditional training forms into respective fighting techniques.
But historically and literally, Kung Fu San Soo approximately means a person greatly accomplished in spontaneous hand-to-hand free form combat fighting. But it has come to be more commonly used to describe the spontaneous two-man free sparring method of training, especially among Kung Fu San Soo practitioners.
The practice of unrestricted public combat, or "death matches", was completely outlawed under the Chinese Nationalists in 1928 with the establishment of the Central Guoshu Institute. Before that time a person could publicly post his mark inviting a challenge match that often ended in serious injury or even death. They were typically fought out on a raised platform called a Lei Tai, and fighters sometimes even fought with traditional combat weapons. The fighting techniques used in the art we know today as Kung Fu San Soo were often employed in Lei Tai combat. But San Soo was modified, first by the Nationalist government into a tough full contact sport fighting venue called Kuo Shu, and later by the Peoples Republic into San Shou, limited by rules and regulations, and managed by referees. Today, with some rules and protective gear, the Lei Tai is still used in parts of Asia in both Kuo Shu and San Shou, the two sport venues that emerged from the outlawing of death match fighting. And although the first Kuo Shu contest held in 1928 was less brutal than the earlier death matches, history holds that it still resulted in many injuries and at least two deaths.
In fact, the calligraphy to represent “San Soo” used by American Kung Fu San Soo schools is precisely the same calligraphy used to represent modern sport San Shou. Go here and check it out for yourself. The calligraphy in the upper left corner of the official San Shou web page is exactly the same as that Chan Siu Dek used for "San Soo" on his degree certificates. In English, San Shou would be a Mandarin pronunciation, while San Soo is a Southern dialect.
So unless it's represented by its Five Family and historic origins, or the documentable lineage, it's extremely difficult to describe Kung Fu San Soo to others who understand Chinese martial arts, even using the Chinese calligraphy. They usually think you're discussing modern San Shou, and sometimes simply have no idea what you're talking about.
But Chan Siu Dek learned his craft well before these modern changes, while Lei Tai "death match" challenges were still being publicly issued. He remembered the "your life or mine" challenges. His was a serious art. What he brought to America was the older, brutal combat style, the Five Family fighting art his family had practiced for at least five generations, an art pronounced Choy Li Ho Fat Hung in Cantonese, or Cailihefoxiong in Mandarin. As Chan Siu Dek was from Taishan, an area with its own distinct almost whistling dialect, Hoisanese, he pronounced it Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung. He called it by the moniker, Kung Fu San Soo, which describes the fight training methodology his family specialized in, and that's how it's been popularized.
Pinyin is a modern popular simplified Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese language. The Cantonese word for family is Ga. In Pinyin it is Jia. Jia shou ('ga soo' in Cantonese) means family hand, as jia = family + shou = hand, and popularly refers to the martial family of empty hand fighting, or to fight hand-to-hand. This fits quite well as a descriptive of Chan Siu Dek's family fighting art. To give you an idea of how confusing this can all be, Romanized spellings can vary significantly depending on the dialect one attempts to depict. For example, the word for fist, or "rolled hand", can be spelled Kuen, Kuan, Guan, Ch'uan, or Quan. The word also means boxing in the Chinese sense where the feet are also used, and can mean free hand. A school can be described by the word Xiao.
It's difficult for us as Americans to put it all together. But the Sonora School of Kung Fu San Soo might be best described by the Pinyin phrase, Cai Li He Fo Xiong Jia Shou Quan Wu Xiao, or in English, a Five Family Hand-To-Hand Fist Fighting School. Some say that’s basically how Chan Siu Dek describe his original school, and if that is so, then the tradition continues.