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When Cranes Fly: What You Need to Know About This Rare Style of White-Crane Kung Fu

White-Crane Kung Fu
Black Belt Plus

China’s Fujian province is famous for being the home of the Southern Shaolin Temple and many powerful styles of traditional kung fu. Because most of these systems focus on close-quarters combat, they typically emphasize sophisticated hand techniques as the solution. Among this myriad of southern styles, white crane is one of the most prominent.

While white crane is a famous fighting art — and perhaps an ancestor of traditional karate — one branch of it is not so well-known. Called fei he chuan (English translation: flying crane), it’s been passed down from the founder through five generations of the Lee family. Only recently has it started to gain a foothold in North America.

Flying crane is one of the four original branches of white-crane kung fu — along with “feeding crane,” “crying crane” and “ancestral crane.” From these, other notable systems have been created, including the famous “five ancestors” style (wu zu chuan). For this reason, it’s worth delving deeper into white crane.

Heaven Sent

Although accounts of the origins of the white-crane style vary, they all consider the founder to be a woman named Fang Chi-Niang. Fang lived in the 18th century and developed her style after failing to shoo away a bothersome crane while wielding a staff. As she attempted to make the bird take flight, she was amazed that it could defend itself with ease — despite her extensive knowledge of lohan kung fu.

When she poked at the bird, it would deftly fly backward while pecking down at the pole, its wings spread menacingly. If she poked again, the bird might sidestep and deflect the strike with its wings.

Yet another staff strike might cause the crane to absorb the blow and then grasp the weapon with its claws.

Legend has it that Fang began practicing daily with what she interpreted to be a heaven-sent creature and that she went on to create a martial art based on the movements and spirit of the avian.

Thus was born white-crane kung fu.

Unfortunately, the flying-crane branch of white crane disappeared in mainland China early in the 20th century, a victim of the widespread political turmoil that afflicted the nation. Fortunately, a third-generation grandmaster named Lee Kiang-Kay preserved the art and started teaching the public after he moved to Malaysia in 1940. Without his efforts, this precious martial heritage might have been lost.

Today, the style is especially strong in Canada, where I’m based, because Lee’s son, fourth-generation grandmaster Lee Joo-Chian, and I developed a close bond. He taught me a great deal until his death in 2020. Now I’m endeavoring to share this knowledge with the world through articles like this.

White-Crane Kung Fu

Lower Body

Flying crane focuses on tricky footwork, effective pressure-point strikes and powerful hand techniques. Its stances have the feet in a straight line with the rear leg bent. These stances are designed to protect the groin while maximizing stability and maneuverability. The art also includes a unique side stance, called ba tse ma in Chinese, that enables the practitioner to sidestep from a neutral position.

All of white crane’s renowned strikes — with the hands, feet, elbows and knees — are included in flying crane, but perhaps the most famous are the finger jab and phoenix-eye fist. These techniques concentrate power in small areas of the opponent’s body with devastating effect.

Both normally rotate into the target. In other words, the strikes are “screwed in” rather than being “hammered in.” In large part, this accounts for their remarkable effectiveness. Flying crane also encompasses numerous cutting motions that are aimed both high and low in combat. Practitioners “cut” to the neck, throat, spine, elbows and so on. To ensure that they’re well-rounded, they condition their bodies to be able to “deliver the merchandise” without suffering injury. This means that beginners at the very least condition their forearms and phoenix-eye fists on a daily basis. Senior practitioners typically also condition their fingers and shins with help from traditional herbal lotions.

The kicks taught in the art are varied. They target pressure points on the opponent’s body, but their use is limited to only situations in which the success of the kick is certain. The logic is as follows: Standing on one leg so you can hit with the other leg is risky, so don’t do it unless the timing is perfect. Fighting conservatively makes even more sense when you consider that in training, counterkicking the groin or knees is encouraged.

Flying crane includes one double flying kick, in addition to several ground-fighting kicks that resemble the rolling one sees in break dancing — complete with flip-ups! If you’re surmising that those ground-fighting kicks are best-suited to younger students, you’re right. More senior practitioners prefer to focus on getting in close and finishing the job with a hand technique.

White-Crane Kung Fu

Smart Fighting

Flying crane’s combat strategy reflects the fact that white crane’s founder was a woman. Because she was small in stature, her approach revolved around avoiding the use of power to fight power. Rather, she chose to deflect, unbalance and control while using the enemy’s strength against him. Then she would overwhelm the person with superior technique, including control methods and pressure-point

strikes. All this makes the art rather unforgiving. For example, in flying crane, there’s no such thing as a punch to the face or a kick to the leg; rather, there are strikes to precise points in those areas, which amplifies the effect on the adversary.

Fang was petite, which quickly taught her to leave nothing to chance in an altercation. Not surprisingly, she learned to avoid combat whenever possible. She also learned to feign weakness when she needed to. She learned to wait for the right opportunity, then strike with speed and accuracy.

All this she picked up from observing the crane. If you ever have a chance to watch one in action — perhaps while it’s hunting — you’ll see how it stays absolutely still until it detects an opening to strike, and usually kill, its prey. Absorbing this cool, calm predatory frame of mind is what’s meant when kung fu students talk about imitating the crane’s spirit.

Clearly, this combination of characteristics makes flying crane a true self-defense system. In a testament to its efficacy when it was created, the art in the modern era remains virtually the same, unadulterated by martial arts fashions and trends. Also of note is that the art has preserved its traditional methods of armed combat and, in fact, still features training in more than 18 classical weapons.

White-Crane Kung Fu

Theoretical Base

Flying crane encompasses many principles in fighting. These include floating, sinking, swallowing, pouncing, tossing, lifting and springing. These methods are combined with the five-elements theory (gold, wood, water, fire and earth). After intensive study, it becomes apparent that the difference between pros and amateurs often lies in the ability or lack thereof to integrate and use the theories of the art. When my teacher moved, he was as light as a gazelle and maneuvered like a flying crane. Over time, I realized that he was simply applying four of the art’s 13 combat theories (absorbing and exerting, floating and sinking) to his footwork.

The flying-crane system uses both single and double stickinghands training. This method teaches practitioners to use their techniques in close-quarters, hands-on scenarios. They start with their hands touching, then try to apply their techniques freely. Although it’s not sparring, it certainly is a step closer to actual combat. With

regular training, practitioners can become more comfortable fighting at close quarters.

Throughout this phase of training, the goal is to maintain a strong bridge to the opponent and “listen” with the arms. Once students can do so, they find it easier to use flying crane’s offensive techniques. Having a theoretical base is all well and good, but most modern students of the martial arts demand real-world self-defense from the system they study, and in this regard, flying crane does not disappoint.

Increasing numbers of people whose work involves frequent exposure to danger are gravitating to the art — as are civilians who are seeking a genuine martial tradition and all that it entails.

White-Crane Kung Fu

Worst Case

Before his death in 2020, Lee Joo-Chian often said that when it comes to striking, the three main targets in flying crane are the eyes, throat and groin. This also implies that a practitioner needs to protect these three points when he or she strikes. The art teaches many more points — 108 in total — but these are considered fight- enders. Naturally, attacks to them are deemed acceptable only in dire circumstances.

Despite its inclusion of deadly fighting techniques, flying crane features an additional bit of wisdom, which is reflected in some advice that Lee imparted to me: “Never play.” By that, he meant one should avoid conflict at all costs by being quick to step back and remain humble in any situation that has the potential to escalate.

However, he would explain, when real trouble is imminent, don’t fool around. Do what needs to be done — perhaps by using one of the aforementioned techniques aimed at the eyes, throat or groin. This imperative is fine-tuned in sparring. Flying-crane students are taught not to be too rough but not to fool around, either. When they train with the mindset one needs to be serious or even predatory,

they have the best chance of victory. That this final bit of wisdom applies to any martial art offers further proof of the genius of Fang Chi-Niang, Lee Joo-Chian and all the instructors who came in between.

Lorne Bernard is a closed-door disciple of Lee Joo-Chian (1958- 2020) and the official heir of the flying-crane branch of whitecrane kung fu. He’s also in charge of propagating flying crane around the world. In 1993 Bernard wrote the first English-language book about white crane. Ten years later, he wrote Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu: A Rare Art Revealed. He’s also produced a series of DVDs. His most recent book, titled Authentic White Crane Kung Fu, is co-written by Lee and was published in 2021. For more information, visit or

This article originally appeared in a 2021 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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