So Chan Kung Fu: Beggar Style for the Road

A Kung Fu Style for Wanderers

Stephen Chow in King of the Beggars (1992)

So Chan kung fu is a strange martial art style, not because it is a hybrid style like Choi Li Fut, or because it has a funny name like Pai Mei. Nope.

It is strange martial art because it is the style of the vagrants and wanderers, street performers, healers, and magicians. Those who practiced occult Taoist magic.

In the West, when we think of beggars, we think of homeless people, begging for money in street corners or the subway, filthy, drunk (or high), and destitute.

In Imperial China, going as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BC), some beggars wandered from town to town. Without a home, a family, or a job.

And before you ask, yes, there were female beggars too, although they rarely traveled alone. And yes, there is truth to kung fu cinema’s stereotype of the homeless master with a drinking problem.

image from the film True Legend (2010)

Some were former soldiers. Others were burglars. A few were rebels or witch doctors. Yet, the majority were traveling performers, no different than modern circus artists.

Except, instead of flying from a trapeze, eating fire, or taming lions, they performed exorcisms, sold herbal remedies, perform martial arts, or use qi gong as a magic show.

In effect, they were entertainers first, healers second, and martial artists third.

Furthermore, they were organized in loose secret societies with their codes and signals. For what? Mostly for survival but many times for spying and safe passage.

Their martial arts and feats adorned many folktales. Just don’t call them beggars in the modern sense. Or vagabonds, or wizards. Don’t offend them.

Do call them warriors.

What does a Beggar Fight Like?

image from the film Legend of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So (2016)

First, So Chan kung fu is actually named after a folk hero of the same name from the Qing Dynasty who lived in 19th century Guandong. He was better known as So Fa-Tsz or Su Hut-yee).

Unsurprisingly, he is been portrayed in many kung fu movies by many stars such as Lau Kar-leung, Gordon Liu, Stephen Chow, and Donnie Yen.

Most recently he was played by Jun Cao in Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So (2016).

However, my favorite portrayal of beggar kung fu is in the old Jackie Chan film, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) in which Jackie’s character is trained in snake kung fu by a beggar.

This illustrates a major trait of beggar kung fu. There is no strict style of beggar kung fu. There are dozens.

Being nomads, Chinese beggars moved from city to city, picking forms and techniques from Hakka, Fukien, and Hokkien people–but not Shaolin since they were neither monks and Daoists rather than Buddhists.

image from the film Drunken Master (1978)

Furthermore, if Shaolin monks needed to learn self-defense to protect themselves from thieves and bandits, beggars, who were a lesser respected social class, even more so.

Nonetheless, unlike Drunken Style, where you fight like a drunk person, or animal styles, where you fight like a particular animal, the object of beggar kung fu is not to fight like a beggar. It just refers to the martial forms of beggars.

Beggar style had to be fast and deadly by necessity. Long, elaborated forms could mean death. The simpler, shorter, and narrower the better, so none of those fancy Northern Shaolin kicks.

One hand would grab while the other punches. Since it was made for street survival, beggar style was not above using cheap tricks and dirty fighting.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that sets vagabond or beggar kung fu from other Chinese martial styles like Wudang, Shaolin, and Hakka. Can you guess?

Like Than Quyen, it was a trance martial art.

Beggar Styles and Spirit Fist

Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

As seen above, there is not one beggar style but several, taking elements from diverse martial traditions. However, certain elements are common to all beggar’s styles, almost idiosyncratic.

For example, the beggar’s hand (picture to hands together,  palms face up, right hand on top of the left as if begging from coins. Both usually strike forward hitting the abdomen.

Similarly, the butterfly hands (aka Blind Man Wiping the Wall technique) that move together blocking and striking, are iconic of the beggar style.

Moreover, typical of Chinese martial arts, beggar style techniques have poetic names, like Yellow Dog Scratching at the Sand or Open the Door to See the Moon.

image from the Korean drama Dong Yi

Nevertheless, the beggar style is a Taoist system, based on the five-element theory, and in true Taoist martial tradition, it is based on sorcery and alchemy.

Indeed, beggar styles are a form of trance martial art.

No, you would not find it in modern China because the People’s Party censors any type of spiritualism or religion that is not state-sponsored. But it still lives in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Also, don’t dismiss the supernatural elements. Supernatural does not necessarily mean paranormal. It just means we do not have a proper scientific explanation yet.

Stephen Chow in King of the Beggars (1992)

Still, like Than Quyen, or Spirit Fist, the Beggar style pushes the boundaries of what is understood as kung fu in the West.

In the end, the only thing that should matter is, does it work in combat?

When I listed my top ten kung fu styles, So Chan did not even make an honorable mention, although I did say I was a fan.

Sadly, the style is not very well-known in the West, and like most trance martial arts, it remains a curiosity at best.

Be as it may, just be glad modern beggars do not know it. That would make for quite a dangerous subway ride.

Reader, are you a fan of beggar-style kung fu? Would you like it to be more popular in the West?


2 Responses

  1. Terrance says:

    So you where I could possibly find more information about Beggar Style kung fu?

    • Albizu73 says:

      Sadly, there is hardly any information available. Unless we can read Mandarin, there might be sources in Taiwan or Hong Kong. However, there are dozens of films. Granted, kung fu cinema is not “real kung fu” but is still an approximation.
      Good luck in your search, Terrance.

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March 2023