By Stefan Verstappen,Originally published in Inside Kung Fu Magazine April ’01
For more than 3,000 years the most dreaded and effective fighting machine was the mounted soldier. The fearsome sight of a heavily armed cavalryman charging across the expanse was enough to send the average infantryman running for his life. Sometime around 400 B.C., the Macedonians developed the phalanx, a tight formation of infantrymen carrying 18-foot pikes as a defense against cavalry. While the phalanx protected the foot soldiers from cavalry it was basically a defensive tactic and could do little to counterattack the cavalry. This created a kind of stalemate that lasted for more than 1,000 years.
The Mongols devised a strategy that put the advantage back with the cavalry. Instead of charging the phalanx with lances or swords, the Mongols carried bows and would ride circles around a phalanx while raining arrows into the formation until enough soldiers were killed. The formation would collapse. Thus, the mounted soldier was again the premier fighting unit until well after firearms were introduced. But in China a technique that had its origins, ironically, in child’s play, was developed that gave the foot soldier a chance to unhorse a cavalryman. The methodology was simple enough: you just kick the rider in the head so hard he falls off his horse.
But how do you kick a moving target seven-to-eight feet off the ground? That’s where the child’s play came in. When we talk about pole vaulting we naturally think of a track and field event, but for children in rural areas throughout the world, pole vaulting is just a fun addition to cross-country travel. As a child growing up in the wilds of the Canadian north, my friends and I would spend much of our time exploring the neighboring forests. Before entering, we would all cut a sapling about an inch and-a-half thick and seven-to- eight feet long and, using our scout knives, we would whittle the trunk into a smooth pole.
This gave us both the moral support of having a weapon handy in case of chance encounters with dragons, and a quick way to cross the numerous streams and creeks that criss-crossed the terrain. Whenever we came upon a stream we would place the pole in the center of the stream and then pole vault across, thus avoiding the dreaded soaker. I had forgotten this skill until 20 years later when I was outside Chang Mai, Thailand. While riding a motorcycle through the countryside I saw young Thai children pole vaulting across the irrigation ditches used to water the vegetable fields in the same way we used to cross the creeks. And therein lies the answer to unhorsing a mounted soldier. You just pole vault to his level, then kick him off.
In the 18 Lohan pole style this rather-rare technique is known as the flying phoenix kick. While it was an innovative counterattack against a mounted opponent, it was basically a guerrilla tactic used to unhorse scouts and patrols and was not practical against a full-scale cavalry charge. But it was well-suited to China’s rugged terrain and to its long tradition of guerrilla warfare. Throughout its history, China’s rebel fighters took to the mountains in their struggle against corrupt emperors. Their imperial horsemen would be forced to ride single file through narrow trails with little or no room to maneuver. Under those conditions the flying phoenix kick would have been effective indeed. It is known that the rebel armies would usually include fighting monks from various denominations including Shaolin, and that may be why this technique survived as a part of the shaolin weapons routines. While there is little need for this technique in one’s self-defense repertoire it does make a flashy addition to a staff form, improve balance and coordination, and, most importantly, provide infinite enjoyment.
Safety and the Staff
First, you must have a solid hardwood staff strong enough to support your own body weight. On two occasions while I was in mid-vault my staff broke into sharp shards under me. Had I landed wrong I could easily have been impaled, so don’t take this advice lightly. I recommend a solid oak staff, at least six feet long. Avoid staffs with tapered ends since these tend to either skid more easily across a floor or otherwise sink several inches into the soil and then break off at ground level. To test your staff, place it across two chairs so that approximately 12 inches of each end rests on the chair. Now carefully sit down on the staff at mid-point. If the staff breaks don’t use it. This test causes greater stress on the staff than occurs during the pole vault, but it is better to have margin of safety.
Another safety concern is floor surface. On hardwood or tiled floors the end of the staff is likely to slip out from underneath you and you could have a nasty fall. The safest place to practice is outdoors on the grass, but if you must practice indoors you should first experiment with either rubber tips on the end of the staff such as those used on canes and walkers, or place rubber-backed door mats on the floor. On tatami or high-density foam flooring you should also place mats on the floor, not for safety, but to prevent poking holes into the flooring. Test unfamiliar surfaces by practicing a few low-level vaults before attempting the high-flying kicks.
Depending on the particular technique there are three ways of gripping the staff: both thumbs pointing to the right; both the thumbs pointing to the left; and both thumbs pointing to the middle. For the flying phoenix technique you must use the first grip, with both thumbs pointing to the right. (This is for right-handed people; southpaws will have to reverse the directions.) Grip the staff with the right hand about two inches from the top and the left hand about two feet below the right. (This is like holding a canoe paddle and paddling on the left.)
Hold the left-hand section of the staff out and downward at a 45-degree angle. Too far out and the staff will skid across the floor; too close and you will get no distance or lift. Plant the staff firmly on the ground with your left foot leading. Hold your right hand close to the right shoulder.
Use your right leg with the knee bent to kick up and lift your body off the ground while transferring your body weight onto the staff. A key point is to keep the staff tight against your body, much like climbing a rope. Lift both knees as you arch over the staff. Land on your left foot first but don’t place all the weight on it. Instead, let the weight roll from your left leg onto the right, reducing the impact stress on both legs. Once you’re used to the vault starting from a static position, try to get even more height and distance by taking a couple of quick steps to “run up” to the vault.
Practice just the vault a few times until you are able to cross an eight-foot distance with no effort. Once you are comfortable with the vault you can progress to the actual sidekick. This is performed just like a jumping sidekick. After you have transferred your weight onto the staff, the right leg is chambered and then kicked out sideways midway through the jump. For proper form make sure the edge of the kicking foot is leading while the left leg is simultaneously tucked up against the right thigh. Land as usual. Performing this technique is much easier than it looks and you will soon be able to kick six-to-seven feet off the ground with little effort.
In the Chinese martial arts we often learn and practice techniques that have little relationship to modern combat reality, but this is not the point. For example, sit-ups have little practical use in a street fight yet we all do thousands of them because it increases strength. The flying phoenix kick will not save you from being mugged, but the grace, coordination, balance, and timing it teaches will improve the efficiency of the techniques that will save you. So the next time you go for a hike in the woods bring along your trusty staff. Whenever you come to a stream, instead of getting your feet wet, just sail across on your pole. Who knows, it may also come in handy when encountering the occasional forest dragon.