History and Style of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu

Man silhouetted by the sun during Kung Fu practice on a beach

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Choy Li Fut is a form of kung fu that even martial arts hero Bruce Lee enjoyed. With this review of its history and style, find out what makes this martial art stand out. Lee gave Choy Li Fut high praise, describing it in the book Between Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do as "the most effective system that I've seen for fighting more than one person." 

"[It] is one of the most difficult styles to attack and defend against," he said. "Choy Li Fut is the only style [of kung fu] that traveled to Thailand to fight the Thai boxers and hadn't lost."

In other words, Lee felt that Choy Li Fut rivaled Muay Thai as a highly effective striking style. Here's why.


Choy Li Fut is generally a striking style with a variety of stances. In general, they tend to be of the lower variety, designed for movement. Fighting stances require practitioners to hold their torso at an angle, giving an opponent more of a shoulder than a chest, in order to lessen the amount of their body that can be struck. This differs starkly from the straight on fighting stance of Wing Chun, for example.

There are several types of hand strikes within the art, including those that connect from the fist, open hand, claw hand and more. Kicks are also used in Choy Li Fut. The Long Fist and Buddhist Palm boxing styles are taught as part of this style as well.


Usually, stances are practiced repeatedly at the outset of training before other techniques are explored. Many forms are practiced within the Choy Li Fut system, as its founder learned forms and arts from three different major influences before melding his own system. In fact, more than 250 forms can be practiced. Weapons, as in other martial arts, are used within the style. Exclusive to the system is the Nine-Dragon Trident, a weapon with hooks and blades designed to shred anything it comes with which it comes into contact. This weapon was created by Choy Li Fut's founder, Chan Heung.

History of the Style

Like many Chinese martial arts, the origins of Choy Li Fut (Cantonese) or Cai Li Fo (Mandarin) are difficult to trace. However, Chan Heung is widely regarded as the founder. Heung was born Aug. 23, 1806, in King Mui, a village in the San Woi (Xin Hui) district of China's Guangdong province. But the story of Choy Li Fut does not start with Chan Heung. Rather, it begins with his uncle, Chan Yuen-Wu, a boxer from the Shaolin Temple. At the age of seven, Chan Heung began training in the art of Fut Gar under Chan Yuen-Wu's tutelage. When Heung was 15, his uncle took him to Li Yau-San, where he began learning the Li Gar style.

According to legend, when the Shaolin Temple was attacked and destroyed many years ago, five elders survived. A man by the name of Jee Sin Sim See (AKA- Gee Seen Sim See) was one of these survivors. See was a great martial artist who taught five outstanding students, who reportedly started the five Southern Chinese martial arts styles: Hung Gar, Choy Gar, Mok Gar, Li Gar, and Lau Gar.

The founder of Choy Gar was Choy Gau Yee. He is believed to have trained a man by the name of Choy Fook. Why is this important? Well, simply because Li Yau San recommended to Chan Heung that he seek out training from Choy Fook. Eventually, Heung found him on Lau Fu mountain, but even the letter of recommendation from Li Yau-San did not sway Fook to teach Heung martial arts. After some pleading, however, Choy Fook did agree to teach him Buddhism. 

It is said that after a demonstration where Choy Fook easily propelled a rock through the air with his foot, he took Heung on as a martial arts student. At the age of 28, Heung returned to King Mui village. One year later in 1835, Fook sent Heung advice in the form of the following poem:

  • 龍虎風雲會, The dragon and tiger met as the wind and the cloud.
  • 徒兒好自爲, My disciple, you must take good care of your future.
  • 重光少林術, To revive the arts of Shaolin,
  • 世代毋相遺. Don't let the future generations forget about this teaching.

In 1836, Heung brought his vast martial arts knowledge together and honored his previous teachers (Choy Fook, Li Yau-San, and Chan Yuen-Woo) by formally naming his martial arts style Choy Li Fut. It is a system with both Buddhist and Shaolin roots. Later, many of his students opened up schools of their own, some of which led to sub-styles within the art.


Choy Li Fut has four main sub-styles. First, there's King Mui Choy Li Fut. This is the style that came from the village of King Mui, where Chan Heung originally founded the system. It has a "Chan" family heritage, in that the current leader of the sub-style, Chan Yiu-Chi, is Chan Heung's grandson.

In 1898, Chan Cheong-Mo, a student of Chan Heung, founded a school in Kong Chow (now Jiangmen). The sub-style Jiangmen (or Kong Chow Choy Li Fut) grew from those origins.

The Fut San Hung Sing branch of Choy Li Fut was started by Chan Din-Foon in 1848. Jeong Yim, a student of Chan Heung's, was Din Foon's successor in 1867. Yim is a highly controversial figure because there's very little documentation about him, but the sub-style Buk Sing Choy Li Futcan be traced back to him.

Yim taught a student named Lui Charn. In turn, Charn taught a student named Tam Sam. Unfortunately, due to a problem with another student, Tam Sam was asked to leave Charn's tutelage and school. This compelled him to get together with some of Charn's students and open a school in Guangzhuo, Siu Buk, called Buk Sing Choy Li Fut. Buk Sing is known more for application of techniques than forms.