Profundity in Simplicity: Cross Roads at Four Gates
Cross Roads at Four Gates (Sap Tze Seai Moon Khuen) is a very special set in our Shaolin Wahnam school. While we are fortunate to have a Grandmaster who is an expert at composing sets (like our Dragon-Tiger set) and combining sets (like our Flower set), Cross Roads at Four Gates is one of the few sets we have that is passed down unchanged from the days when Shaolin monks practiced it as their first set at the southern Shaolin Temple. Its signature characteristic is “Profundity in Simplicity”, as it is a set of great depth with something for beginner and master alike.
Cross Roads at Four Gates comes to us from the Venerable Jiang Nan, a monk at the southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou. He taught it to Sifu Yang Fatt Khun, who later taught it to Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, who later taught it to my Sifu, Sifu Wong Kiew Kit. It is the only set that Sifu Ho personally taught Sifu Wong in its entirety.
Cross Roads at Four Gates was the fundamental set taught to martial monks at the southern Shaolin Temple during the Venerable Jiang Nan’s time. He was there until it was burned down in the 1850’s, so we can safely assume Four Gates was taught at the southern Shaolin Temple at least during the first half of the 19th century. However, it was likely taught there for much longer given the discovery that a 500-year-old mural from the northern Shaolin Temple depicts monks practicing applications from Four Gates.
There is also a “song of secrets” about Cross Roads at Four Gates:
Shaolin Four Gates trains bridges and stances
Secrets are found in flowers in the sleeves
Block the Boss and Carry Insignia with punches
Phoenix Flap its Wings to rustle leaves
To Hit the Gong in unexpected slanting motion
To Seek the Organ, show the shadow hand
The marvel of Catching Tigers in the Mountains
Only from the master can students understand
Despite its rich Shaolin history, Cross Roads at Four Gates is not a well-known set.
Even though Sifu never learned Four Gates from Uncle Righteousness, a serendipitous conversation he had with an elderly Chinese man in Australia revealed that it is also a strong part of Uncle Righteousness’s lineage:
When “Cross-Roads at Four Gates” was mentioned, his eyes lighted up. He said that in his youth he learned this set from his sifu, Ng Yew Loong, and he told me this set was passed down from the southern Shaolin Temple. Ng Yew Loong learned from Chan Fook, a lay disciples at the southern Shaolin Temple.
Sifu Ng Yew Loong was Uncle Righteousness’s Sifu, and thus Sifu’s Sigung! It is both interesting and telling that Sifu’s two most influential lineages to the southern Shaolin Temple both have Cross Roads at Four Gates.
About the Set
Cross Roads at Four Gates is a short, 36-pattern one-man set. The name is a translation of “Sap Tze Seai Moon Khuen” in Cantonese (“Shi Zi Si Men Quan” in Mandarin). “Sap Tze”/”Shi Zi” is “ten-word” or “ten-character” which figuratively means “cross-road”. “Seai Moon”/”Si Men” is “Four Gates”. “Khuen”/”Quan” is “Fist”, which figuratively means “kungfu set”. It is called “cross-road” because the set resembles a crossroads. It is called “four gates” because it attacks the “four directions”.
There is also a two-man combination set consisting of four combat sequences featuring applications from Four Gates. The first sequence of the combination set comes from Sifu Ho or perhaps another ancestor in our lineage. The rest of the combination set was devised by Sifu Wong with the blessing of Sifu Ho. In the above link about the mural, Sifu explains how it shows monks practicing many of the same applications found in the combination set, which he discovered long after he composed it. So even if most of the combination set was composed much more recently than the solo set, we can be sure that its flavor and content still share its rich history at the southern Shaolin Temple. While the one-man set is not spectacular to watch, the combination set is eye-opening in how it employs seemingly simple patterns to counter sophisticated attacks.
Despite its short length, Cross Roads at Four Gates is a complete set, meaning that it contains ways to attack and defend the four categories of attack: hand strikes, kicks, felling, and chin-na. It also features patterns (like Catch Tiger in Mountain and Crouching Cannon to Sky) for attacking and defending from the ground. That said, it heavily emphasizes hand strikes. Indeed, a beginner may not see any obvious felling patterns when watching the solo set, and only one or two obvious chin-na patterns and kicks.
Variations Over the Years
While the mural confirms that the way monks at the southern Shaolin Temple practiced Four Gates was similar to how we practice it today, there aren’t any other records of how it was taught and practiced there, by Venerable Jiang Nan, or by Sifu Yang Fatt Khun. However, we do know a little about how it was taught and practiced in Sifu Ho Fatt Nam’s school and a lot about how Sifu Wong has taught it over the years.
Cross Roads at Four Gates was much emphasized in Sifu Ho’s school. Sifu Wong has said that his classmates there practiced it frequently and often used the first combat sequence as a starting point for sparring.
Sifu Wong has taught Cross Roads at Four Gates several times over the years:
- at the Shaolin Wahnam Association in the 1980’s
- in Malaysia
- in Toronto 2005
- at the UK Summer Camp 2008
- in St Petersburg, Florida 2016
Additionally, Sifu Wong featured Cross Roads at Four Gates in “The Complete Book of Shaolin”.
One thing you will notice if you watch through the above course videos is that there are some differences in how Cross Roads at Four Gates is taught across courses. This is because Sifu follows the advice he often gives us that we must keep our kung fu alive. When teaching a course, Sifu adapts the material and the way he teaches it to the students. The beginner might be confused that there isn’t one Official Way of practicing Four Gates and its combination set. In contrast, the more experienced student appreciates the insights gained from exposure to different variations.
These variations apply mostly to the combination set. When teaching the solo set, Sifu sometimes replaces the first Fierce Tiger Across Valley with Precious Duck Swims Through Lotus, which highlights how effectively these patterns can be substituted for one another when it is advantageous to do so in combat (something the combination set also highlights). Otherwise, he teaches the solo set unchanged. The variations found in the combination set are more numerous, but not radical. Rather, they demonstrate how the patterns have different layers of applications from beginner to master level, such as applying the opening Hide Flower in Sleeves as an arm lock rather than a grip release or replacing the Reverse Hanging of Golden Lotus with Rising Dragon Galloping Tiger in the fourth sequence. Profundity in Simplicity!
Cross Roads at Four Gates has some special characteristics, namely:
- One Hand to Spar, One Hand to Drink Tea
- Exploding force from dantian without waist rotation
- Profundity in Simplicity
Understanding these special characteristics leads to a greater appreciation of the set and a more effective practice with greater benefits.
One Hand to Spar, One Hand to Drink Tea
In kung fu terminology, the leading or controlling hand is known as the emperor hand, and the secondary, supporting hand is known as the minister hand. Which hand is the emperor hand and which is the minister hand changes depending on the situation, but you can also apply the concept generally to groups of patterns, like sets.
In Four Gates, the right hand is the emperor hand and the left hand is the minister hand. There are twice as many patterns in the set that feature the right hand as there are the left. The right hand is almost always a fist, pressing forward with Fierce Tiger Across Valley and Precious Duck, countering with Bar the Big Boss and Hide Flower in Sleeves, and delivering a coup de grace Black Tiger Steals Heart or Lohan Strikes Bell. The left hand is almost always a palm, piercing between punches with Poisonous Snake Emerges from Pit, threading to set up a Black Tiger with Threading the Bridge at Bow-Arrow or Mirror Hand, and brushing away strikes and countering with Amitabha Palm.
Of course, either hand can be used to employ whichever pattern is best for the situation, but generally separating the roles of the hands this way has some benefits. Beginners develop combat proficiency faster because each hand only has to be able to do a few things well rather than many things well. Masters make use of the specialized roles to develop the high level tactic/skill “One hand to spar, one hand to drink tea”.
This tactic/skill has its origins in the first sequence of the Four Gates combination set (and first section of the solo set) where the initiator executes Bar the Big Boss, then Guan Ping Carries the Insignia, then Precious Duck Swims Through Lotus to defend attacks from both of the responder’s hands before delivering a coup de grace, all with his right hand. It can be expanded and systematically trained to incorporate defending and countering any attack, whether it be a hand strike, kick, felling attack, or chin-na. Not only is it fun to practice, developing the ability to use one hand to spar, one hand to drink tea has some real benefits:
- Your general combat efficiency is greatly enhanced
- You learn to move only as much as you need to (developing faster, more efficient movement)
- Employing the tactic may demoralize your opponent into retreating or anger him into making a critical mistake
- You can still fight well even if one arm is injured
Even though the name implies that the minister hand is not needed, in accordance with Safety First, it should still support the emperor hand if it can.
Exploding Force from Dan Tian without Waist Rotation
Waist rotation is strongly emphasized in most of our Shaolin Kung Fu, as is the gradual progression from large to small movements. Four Gates takes it a step further and features the skill of exploding force from dan tian without using waist rotation.
Some applications simply won’t work if waist rotation is used. For instance, what if someone grips your left hand with their left tiger claw, and you release the grip with your right Hide Flower in Sleeves and then immediately strike them in the chest with Fierce Tiger Across Valley? With no waist rotation between the Hide Flower in Sleeves and Fierce Tiger, you explode your opponent’s gripping hand safely away to the side and strike him with the Fierce Tiger before he can recover. With waist rotation, you will take too much time to execute the Fierce Tiger, giving your opponent a chance to recover and counter. And if you are too hasty releasing your opponent’s grip, your waist rotation will explode his hand towards you instead of to the side!
Of course, you can still use waist rotation to explode force with Four Gates patterns. In the above scenario, you may find waist rotation helpful to release the grip with Hide Flower in Sleeves. And some patterns, like Lohan Strikes Bell, require waist rotation to execute properly.
Exploding force in this manner entails filling the meridians connecting the dan tian and hands with flowing energy and then exploding force from dan tian upon striking. This will cause force from the dan tian to spiral through the meridians, out the hand, and into your opponent. It also contributes to good health as it enhances circulation of energy throughout the body.
Beginners will generally find that they need to use more waist rotation until they develop sufficient internal force and clear the meridians. Masters, on the other hand, will produce devastating force from a small, explosive movement.
Profundity in Simplicity
Profundity in Simplicity is such a powerful special characteristic of Four Gates that it can be found in all of the other special characteristics. It is the reason why Cross Roads at Four Gates has such depth that beginners and masters alike can benefit from it.
One way that Profundity in Simplicity manifests is in the solo and combination sets themselves. Watch the solo set. Doesn’t it look short and simple? Watch the combination set. Are you surprised at how those same simple patterns can be effectively applied in sophisticated ways?
Take the innocuous-looking Catch Tiger in Mountain as an example. If you don’t already know its applications (like in sequences 3 and 4 of the combination set), you might think it’s a decorative pattern, or maybe that it’s used to dodge a high kick. Would you believe that it is a combat-ending move so valued that it is specially mentioned in the song of secrets and included in the Essence of Shaolin set (the set composed of the best 108 patterns for combat in all of Shaolin Kung Fu)?
And what if I told you there are at least three different no-shadow kicks in the solo set? Profundity in Simplicity!
The sequences that comprise the combination set are quite advanced, but they encapsulate some simple, broadly-applicable tactics. Sequence 1 includes the following “mini-sequence”:
|Fierce Tiger (R)||->||Mirror Hand (R)|
|Poisonous Snake (L)||->||Mirror Hand (L)|
|Precious Duck (R)||->||Bar the Big Boss (R)|
This mini-sequence teaches how to safely press with -and defend against- alternating hand strikes. The responder employs the tactic of countering by closing the pressing strikes (i.e. brushing them across the initiator’s body) to disrupt the initiator’s rhythm and control the pace of combat. If he is advanced, he may execute his Mirror Hands as slicing palms that strike down the initiator just when he thinks he is about to land a strike himself. The initiator counters this by redirecting the momentum of the responder’s Mirror Hands back around to close the responder’s arm instead, creating an opening to continue his pressing attack.
The start of the second sequence employs a similar pressing attack with alternating hand strikes, but this time the responder counters by opening the strikes (i.e. pushing them away from the initiator’s body):
|Black Tiger (R)||->||Mirror Hand (L)|
|Precious Duck (L)||->||Hand Sweep (R)|
Here, the initiator counters being opened by leaking his striking hand around the Mirror Hand to instead open the responder, creating an opening to continue his pressing attack. He could do the same after the Precious Duck and continue pressing with this mini-sequence over and over.
Between these two simple mini-sequences, you can develop the skill to safely press using alternating hand strikes using whichever patterns you prefer, regardless of how your opponent defends (and vice versa)! How’s that for Profundity in Simplicity?
By now, I hope you appreciate the wondrous depth that can be found in this seemingly simple set. There is, however, another benefit of Four Gates that I haven’t mentioned yet:
Cross Roads at Four Gates brings greater appreciation of the 16 Basic Combat Sequences and our modern Shaolin Kung Fu Curriculum.
Sifu Wong devised the 16 Basic Combat Sequences as a means to help students gain basic combat proficiency faster than they can using Four Gates. Our students don’t learn Four Gates until they are already proficient with the 16 Basic Combat Sequences. I confirmed this truth by direct experience with my own students. When they attended Sifu’s Four Gates course in 2016, none of them had learned all of the 16 Basic Combat Sequences yet, creating an opportunity to compare the “old” way of beginners using Four Gates to develop combat proficiency with the “new” way using the 16 Basic Combat Sequences. As we continued to focus on Four Gates in our weekly class over the six months following Sifu’s course, they struggled to learn the routines and applications of the combination set. Indeed, they “only” fully learned the first sequence in that time. However, they did a lot of focused practice on skills and applications, and they improved tremendously. When we returned our focus from Four Gates back to the 16 Basic Combat Sequences, my students were surprised to find that they learned new patterns, applications, and sequences much faster than they did before the Four Gates course!
Reflecting on this experience, I realize how lucky we are that Sifu has evolved our training to be so cost-effective. Students absolutely gain combat proficiency faster starting with the 16 Basic Combat Sequences rather than Four Gates. When I think about Shaolin monks in the past starting with Four Gates (and going up from there!), I appreciate how incredibly high the standard of combat proficiency was in the past compared to today. At the same time, Four Gates really does have something for beginner and master alike. Even though in some respects it was above my students’ level at the time they learned it, they benefited and progressed tremendously by practicing it.
The Profundity in Simplicity of Cross Roads at Four Gates is a manifestation of another Shaolin treasure: Zen. It’s no wonder why it was practiced for so long at the southern Shaolin Temple and yet still brings wonderful benefits to students in the very different world of today. If you train well, maybe one day you will experience the benefits described in this article for yourself. And then you, too, will walk the same path and make the same realizations as your Shaolin ancestors did hundreds of years ago.