Kung Fu styles often include a variety of weapons within their martial repertoire. Northern styles, especially, often include an immense panoply of weapons to choose from. This was true of the Shaolin Temple as well. Monks at the Shaolin Temple trained in an incredible number of distinct weapons.
Chinese weapons can often be distinguished by their length (long versus short), by being single or double (like the double broadsword, double straight sword, or double ring daggers), as staff or sword, but also by the category “flexible,” which can include such obscure (to the uninitiated) weapons as metal section whips (like the 9 section steel whip), and the meteor hammer (a rope with a metal ball attached at the end). Some weapons fit in multiple categories, e.g., the 3 section staff, one of my favorites, is a staff and can reach a great length, and yet, it is also considered a flexible weapon. I wouldn’t recommend novices try the 3 section staff. You should probably have gained proficiency in at least long staff (if not also spear), and also at least one flexible weapon (beyond nunchaku) before attempting the 3 section staff.
Some Kung Fu styles, like Wing Chun, only include a very few weapons. Traditionally, Wing Chun only includes their long staff, which is very long (usually over 8 inches), and the butterfly swords. When I studied Wing Chun, we also included some more practical weapons like the knife and the stick or short staff, but the only forms are for the long staff and butterfly swords. My Sifu was including fighting techniques he had learned from Filipino styles (e.g., Kali, Arnis, Escrima) to augment our training.
For most Kung Fu styles, and especially the northern styles, there remain four foundational weapons in which students are expected to gain proficiency–the long staff, spear, broadsword, and straight sword. Often times, but not always, basic proficiency in all four is required prior to the black sash. The weapons add a more complicated element, and more dangerous, to regular empty hand forms training. Each weapon becomes an extension of the body. Weapons training, because of the weight of the weapons, can be a great form of strength training.
The long staff is perhaps the most difficult of the four to learn, although straight sword forms are often more complicated. Traditionally for northern styles, the ones with which I’m most familiar (despite having studied Wing Chun which is southern, and rather an exception in many ways), the staff should not be too long–eyebrow height, or an inch or less (or a little more) over the head, but not much. Top of the head level is fine. Long staff techniques in general involve complicated twirls, spins, strikes from both ends, that involve the hands changing position frequently throughout the forms. Each style has slightly different traditions of using the staff, and so some involve more hand changing than others. But in comparison with Japanese and Okinawan uses of the staff, in my experience, the Chinese styles are far more complicated, and again, this seems to be the case especially with the northern styles like Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu styles (and there are many different Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu styles), with which I’m more familiar.
The spear, although perhaps fancier, is relatively less complicated than the long staff, so if you have your style’s long staff form down, the spear should not be too difficult to learn. Chinese spear forms sometimes use the butt end for strikes, and there are still spins, but in general, far less than with long staff forms, since the main striking portion of the spear is the sharp spear head. This was a very traditional Kung Fu weapon, but, unlike what we might picture as its use in warfare, traditional Kung Fu forms do not focus on the spear as a javelin to be thrown, but rather as a long weapon (like a long staff) to be retained and used to keep an opponent at a distance (and thus create an opportunity for escape), or to finish them off, and then flee with spear in tow.
The broad sword is arguably the easiest and least complicated of these four weapons to learn. It is often taught as the first weapon in Chinese martial arts styles, although this is not always the case. Its use is very different from say the uses of the Japanese sword…although obviously both are used to cut an opponent, and can of course be used to behead, remove limbs, etc. Sorry for the graphic description, but that’s how swords functioned in combat. Japanese swords, which have their own elegance and martial use, are far more subtle than the Chinese broadsword (although less subtle than the Chinese straight sword). The Kung Fu broadsword is more like a battle ax, for hacking away at an opponent. There are exceptions, but in general, if you watch a broadsword form, you should notice that the arms are moving primarily at the shoulder, not at the wrist, nor at the elbow. This is pretty universal across Kung Fu styles, and it has to do with the way the blade is wielded. Broadswords come in a variety of blade flexibilities (from quite flimsy to stiff) and weights (some of which can be quite heavy, and give an incredible workout). I won’t discuss the merits of different types of broadsword specs here, since it all depends upon your purpose and goals. Broadsword forms can be quite eloquent, especially the combination of blocks and strikes. After you master the broadsword, you can even learn the double broadsword, which is a rather difficult weapon to learn (coordinating both arms), but beautiful to watch when performed well.
The final weapon of the four foundational Kung Fu weapons is the straight sword, which is famous in Chinese styles like Tai Chi (although Tai Chi and other internal styles also use a broadsword, long staff, and other weapons). This is an elegant weapon, even more so than the Japanese Ken (sword). It was the weapon of the scholar warrior, and was famous in the martial arts styles that originated in the Wudang Mountains. Unlike the broadsword, there’s no hacking here. This sword is used for slicing and thrusting. Even its blocking techniques are elegant. One of my favorite blocks is a slight parry, that’s almost like an upward slice, followed immediately by an offensive thrust.
There are many more weapons in the Kung Fu arsenal, but these are the basic four, the foundation upon which Kung Fu weapon training is based. If you liked this post, check out my book on Kung Fu.