Unraveling The Mystery Of The Tien Shan Pai

By Jonathan Pett Miller

The following article was reprinted with permission from the May 2004 issue of Inside Kung Fu Magazine. For purchase and subscription information, contact Inside Kung Fu at cfw@pcspublink.com, or P.O. Box 461621, Escondido, CA 92046, (800) 877-5528.

Recently, there seems to be a renewed interest in the style known as Tien Shan Pai. At the same time, there is a good deal of confusion about Tien Shan Pai. Some people have heard of the name; others may know something about the style, but their information is muddled. Some common misconceptions include its origins and principal forms. The purpose of this article is to elaborate on Tien Shan Pai – for those people who know about it and those who don’t.

Some people who think that they have been practicing Tien Shan Pai have actually been practicing something else. At the same time, other people have been practicing Tien Shan Pai and don’t know it.

I have been in the Tien Shan Pai style for nearly twelve years. During this time, I have been privileged to spend considerable time with my current Shih-fu ¡V Grandmaster Huang, Chien-Liang – who is responsible for much of my insight into Chinese martial arts. Based on my own research and discussions, I present the following description of Tien Shan Pai.

Starting With The Name…

First, we should understand the name: Tien Shan Pai. In Chinese, Tien means “heaven” or “celestial.” Shan translates as “mountain.” And finally, Pai means “school” or “style.” Therefore, a literal translation of Tien Shan Pai is something like “Heavenly Mountain style” or “Celestial Mountain style.”

The Chinese language is a character-based language, which has no single or direct method for us to write these words in English. Therefore, scholars have developed numerous systems to write the character-based language of the Chinese using the English alphabet. The Tien Shan Pai name may have been (or continue to be) written as “Tian Shan Pai” or even “Tien Sun Pai.” All of these variations are an attempt to express the Chinese character-based language using the English language.

…And Then Moving To The Place

Tien Shan is the name of a mountain range in China, like the Rocky Mountains in the U.S., or the Himalayas in India and Tibet. The Tien Shan mountains are located in a remote section of northwestern China, at the intersection of the national boundaries for China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Much of the Tien Shan mountain region remains unexplored and unmapped.

The nomadic people native to this region called the mountains “Tengri Tag” or “mountains of the spirits” because they believed that evil spirits inhabited the mountains. Given the dangers of harsh climate and avalanche, it is not surprising that the local population would be apprehensive about these mountains. The Chinese re-named the mountain range Tien Shan, retaining the approximate name but transforming the meaning into something less menacing. The Chinese held that Taoist immortals made their homes in the highest peaks in places such as Tien Shan.

Legendary Origins

Grandmaster Huang’s Shih-fu, Late Supreme Master Wang, related a story to Huang about the origins of the Tien Shan Pai system. I have reproduced the story (with slight edits) in this article.

Nearly every style has its own legendary origins ¡V often involving great sacrifice, special knowledge or a struggle of great significance. This legend asserts that monks living near the Tien Shan mountains developed the Tien Shan Pai. Unfortunately, we have no information or documents today that can prove the origins of the systems or set a firm date for its inception.

One common error relates to the beginnings of the Tien Shan Pai style. Some people say that Tien Shan Pai originated in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.); I believe that this claim is incorrect or, better stated, that we do not truthfully know the date of origin. The current Grandmaster – Huang, Chien-Liang – is the 64th generation. Late Supreme Master Wang was the 63rd generation; his Shih-fu, known both as Ho, Ta-Soon and Ho, Yuen-Ching, was the 62nd generation. If we assume that each generation is 20 years apart, then this implies that the style is over 1,000 years old! Without some proof, however, there is no way to truly date the style.

Another error is the assertion that the style came from the Shaolin Temple. There was no mention of Shaolin in the legendary origins of Tien Shan Pai. I have found a great deal of confusion about the origins of many styles – styles that often proclaim their roots in Shaolin. It is unlikely that all styles came from Shaolin. Many styles were not Shaolin. Nevertheless, this myth about Tien Shan Pai and the Shaolin Temple persists.

So again, to find the origins of Tien Shan Pai, we must go back to Late Supreme Master Wang.

Tracing The Lineage

Late Supreme Master Wang, Chueh-Jen was born around 1910 in Szechuan province, in the southwestern part of China. Wang’s father, a wealthy man and martial artist, arranged for top Masters to train members of the Wang family. It was here that Wang learned the Tien Shan Pai and honed his martial prowess as a young man.

In 1928, the Chinese government supported the foundation of a national martial arts university in the city of Nanking, then the capital city of China. From this university, named the Chung Yang Kuo shu Kuan (Central Kuo shu Academy), the call went out to the top martial artists in China to participate in the development of a common curriculum for Chinese martial arts.

The members of this first class – the so-called Professor-Research class – would then take this curriculum and teach it in the other provinces at regional Kuo shu academies in China. Only the top Masters in China were accepted into the first class. And among those Masters was an 18 year old Wang. When Wang participated in the Central Kuo shu Academy, this marked the first time that the Tien Shan Pai system was seen in the Eastern part of China.

At the conclusion of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Communists defeated the national government. Wang, like many people in China, left the mainland and moved to the island of Taiwan. Other people from China fled to parts of Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Once resettled in Taiwan, Wang started teaching martial arts to the general public again, which marked the first time that the Tien Shan Pai system was seen in Taiwan. Wang had taught open hand combat to special forces units of the Chinese army in both China and Taiwan. He named his new school in Taiwan the Thunder Sound Martial Academy.

Therefore, all evidence indicates that anyone who today teaches or practices Tien Shan Pai learned from Wang¡¦s lineage. If there are other practitioners of Tien Shan Pai, we have never seen them nor has anyone come forward with an alternate lineage. In Taiwan, Asia and the U.S., all Tien Shan Pai lineages converge with Wang.

Unraveling The Mystery

Grandmaster Huang, Chien-Liang, the 64th generation heir of the Tien Shan Pai and the leading advocate of Tien Shan Pai in the world has provided most of my understanding of Tien Shan Pai. Late Supreme Master Wang selected Grandmaster Huang as his only formal disciple. Where Wang brought Tien Shan Pai to Taiwan, Southeast Asia and the United States, Huang has focused his efforts on the United States, South America and Europe.

Wang used a specific curriculum for his students in Taiwan. In general, students learned the forms and techniques from Wang in a prescribed order. Many of the forms that Wang taught were not Tien Shan Pai forms. For example, Wang learned Tien Shan Pai, but also Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chang, other kung fu styles – such as forms from the Central Kuo shu Academy – and he included these other styles in his curriculum to compliment his Tien Shan Pai. One of first forms in the curriculum was Chu Chi Chuan (translated as “Primary Fist”). But Chu Chi Chuan was not Tien Shan Pai, it was a form created for the Central Kuo shu Academy as part of their standardized curriculum. Wang also taught Tai Chi Chuan to some of his advanced students; however, Tai Chi Chuan was not Tien Shan Pai.

In Grandmaster Huang¡¦s curriculum, which is similar to the curriculum of Late Supreme Master Wang, Huang reserves Tien Shan Pai routines for advanced students, i.e. after the student reaches 1st degree black sash. Lower level students are exposed to some basic Tien Shan Pai forms, such as Mei Hua Chuan (Plum Flower Fist) and Yen Hsing Jian (Swallowtail Straightsword). Much of the beginner and intermediate level curriculum consists of non-Tien Shan Pai routines, like Chu Chi Chuan and Chung Chi Chuan (Secondary Fist), which Wang learned from the Kuo shu Academy.

A Crucial Insight

For several years, I struggled with the common confusions about Tien Shan Pai. I did not understand the source of these errors. Why did people believe that the style came from Shaolin and why did they have such difficulties distinguishing Tien Shan Pai from other styles, such as Tai Chi Chuan?

While speaking with Grandmaster Huang (in preparation for this article), I had a breakthrough about the source of errors on Tien Shan Pai: Grandmaster Huang told me that after he had studied with his teacher for a long time, and reached an advanced level, Late Supreme Master Wang explained Tien Shan Pai to Huang. Wang distinguished the elements of the curriculum, clarified their origins, and identified the characteristics and forms associated specifically with Tien Shan Pai.

This detail is essential information because Huang’s teacher rarely talked about Chinese martial arts. He preferred practice to theory. Unlike today’s environment, Late Supreme Master Wang spoke little about each form, often telling the students no more than just the name of the routine. Students did not get the wealth of information typically available today: they did not hear about the style of the form, where the teacher learned the form, how old the form was, or even the names of the individual moves in the form. And students at that time would not dare to ask any questions of their Shih-fu.

Wang’s students would learn many routines – some Tien Shan Pai and others from different styles. But Wang did not provide explanations of the differences. I believe that some students heard that Wang was the Tien Shan Pai Grandmaster, knew the forms he taught and simply connected the two: they made the (incorrect) assumption that Tien Shan Pai included many other styles, like Tai Chi Chuan and Pa Kua Chang.

I suspect that many students did not stay with Late Supreme Master Wang long enough did not receive this crucial insight into the style. Therefore, some practitioners have incorrectly identified elements of the curriculum – such as Chu Chi Chuan and Tai Chi Chuan – as Tien Shan Pai.

So Then, What Is Tien Shan Pai?

So far, we have discussed what Tien Shan Pai is not. So what is it?

Tien Shan Pai is a classically northern style of Chinese martial arts, characterized by extended reach, long stances and an abundance of kicking techniques, including “kick combinations” – a rapid succession of kicks. It is an elegant style: each routine is a smooth yet quick execution of various techniques, combined with light footwork known as the Mi Tsung Pu (Lost Step). The Tien Shan Pai forms include empty hand and weapon routines, and Tien Shan Pai is an effective fighting style as proven in renowned full contact matches during the past fifty years.

It is a comprehensive system. As a comprehensive style, it includes not only empty hand and weapon routines, but also martial chi kung, nei kung, power training (for application in fighting), throwing techniques and its own chin na. At advanced levels, Tien Shan Pai training includes an approach called the Tien Ing (Tien Shan Eagle).

Tien Shan Pai forms contain a special characteristic known as yin shou (sound hand). It is a distinct sound produced, for example, by the foot hitting the hand during kicking techniques; when properly performed, the practitioner produces a precise rhythm with the yin shou. There are several empty hand forms; examples include the previous mentioned Mei Hua Chuan as well as Yuan Yang Pu (Mandarin Duck). Tien Shan Pai also offers an array of weapon forms, particularly double weapons. Examples of these routines include Yen Hsing Jian (mentioned above) as well as the acclaimed Tien Shan Pai double broadsword.

In fighting, Tien Shan Pai stylists train to approach his (or her) opponent either from the front or from the side; the latter method allows the fighter to avoid the “toe to toe” or “force against force” fighting method associated with trading blows. Tien Shan Pai practitioners can use their fighting techniques in conjunction with the “Lost Step” footwork to advance (while evading their opponent¡¦s attacks) and counterstrike or disable an adversary before he (or she) can react. Tien Shan Pai fighters excel at close quarters combat; uprooting an opponent is a favored tactic.

Grandmaster Huang continues his teacher¡¦s practice of including both Tien Shan Pai and non-Tien Shan Pai styles in his curriculum. Therefore, his students learn some Kuo shu Academy forms (like Chu Chi Chuan and Chung Chi Chuan), Ba Chi Chuan, and Tien Shan Pai; at advanced levels, students are exposed to other styles such as Praying Mantis, Monkey style, Cha Chuan, Drunken style, internal styles, and of course, more Tien Shan Pai. Like his teacher, Huang has shaped a curriculum that compliments his core style ¡V Tien Shan Pai ¡V yet it is crucial for both students and enthusiasts to distinguish Tien Shan Pai from these other styles. I hope that this article provides a first step toward that objective.

If you are interested in more information on Grandmaster Huang and Tien Shan Pai, you can find it on the web at www.tienshanpai.org.

Jonathan Pett Miller is a 65th generation Tien Shan Pai disciple of Grandmaster Huang Chien-Liang and focuses his training on Tai Chi Chuan, martial chi kung and Tao meditation. He also serves as Secretary General and Executive Board Member of the U.S.C.K.F. Special thanks to Grandmaster Huang and Shih-fu Robert Anderson for their comments, and to Michael Warres for providing ¡§Romanization¡¨ of the Chinese terms.