Violently Sauced Buddha Begs for Alms Whilst Searching for Car Keys in Fannypack
What the hell is up with those long, descriptive titles for martial arts moves in kung fu flicks?!
Indeed, "What the hell?" These hilarious descriptors have now entered the American imagination, due to the recent explosion of popularity of Hong Kong action film stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Indeed, one of the most famous sources of all time for kung fu descriptors is the Eight Drunken Immortals form featured in the original Drunken Master. Often surfacing as simple humor in American films (such as the recent Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), they are enjoyed by all but understood by few.
What was the original purpose of these lengthy descriptors? Was there a time in China's ancient history when they weren't regarded as the knee-slappers they are today?
China is a culture inundated with myth, story and history. The martial arts world is no exception. In fact, most martial arts movies, however absurd, are based upon Chinese martial legend or fact. The Shao Lin (Siu Lam)and Wu Tang (birthplace of the Nei ja) schools, for instance, while being real places with real histories, feature in an overwhelming percentage of martial arts films and are often embellished beyond all recognition.
However, this same tradition of myth and story-telling was also of great use to teachers in ancient China. The ancient Chinese martial arts master was faced with the interesting problem of compelling his students to memorize long sequences of movements. To expedite this process, the master drew upon the myth and history that all his students were sure to have learned from a young age as a tool to develop a sophisticated memory enhancer. By naming each move in a sequence with a descriptor that references famous characters and myths, the master helped his students with their forms, while simultaneously refreshing bits of cultural heritage in their minds.
The descriptors commonly use famous characters such as gods, demons or animals, and the action of said character, if visualized, can help the student recall the associated posture. This can be done without famous characters or colorful descriptions, but the "colorfulness" helps young minds to recall movements with greater ease.
(My own art, Wing Tsun, is completely bereft of descriptors like this. And for Wing Tsun, that makes perfect sense. Relatively few moves, and all are isolated to one part of the body, with no associated terms for full-body motions or postures. A similar simplicity is found in Chen style Tai Chi Ch'uan.)