by Sifu Wing Lam
For the longest time, leg wraps were the most requested Shaolin item that we did not stock. These leg wraps are a distinctive accouterment to the Shaolin Monk robes; All the monks wear them in those movies and books, so everyone wanted them. Always mindful of your requests, we introduced our Shaolin Leg Wraps as a new item in our last issue. Since their addition, we are experiencing a new request - many of you have started asking what they are for. What is their purpose? As with so many things about Kung Fu, leg wraps are intimately bound into Chinese culture. Here are some of the little known aspects of these unique items.
In Cantonese, leg wraps are called Chin Geuk Bo. Chin means wrapping, Geuk means leg, and bo means cloth. The leg wraps are nothing more than ribbon-like strips of cloth that are tied around the foreleg In similar fashion, they can also be tied around the forearms to serve the same purpose. The primary reason for these wraps is to provide more external support to the forelimbs. When you workout, you muscles become engorged with blood and expand. The wraps prevent your muscles from expanding too much. They also serve to keep your muscles in alignment, reducing your chance of pulls or strains. In this manner, the wraps allow your legs to be springier. They can help increase your endurance, permitting you to run longer and faster, as well as kick stronger. The essential reason for wearing leg wraps is to keep your leg strength longer without fatigue. Additionally, since Kung Fu practitioners wear baggy pants, for more range of motion, the wraps gather up the loose ends, so to speak, preventing rips and tears to uniforms. Many students here have torn their pant legs by swinging a swoord too close to their leg and catching the loose fabric of their uniform. Wearing leg wraps can prevent this.
Up until very recently, the Chinese military relied on these types of wraps as a standard piece of their foot soldier's uniforms. Chinese soldiers often had to endure long marches, and these leg wraps were just what was needed for the infantry to walk for an entire day. Wraps were onsidered one of the most important pieces of equipment for the footsoldier. Sometimes, light armor sered the same purpose. Ancient soldiers wore armor on their forelegs and forearms, similar to our studded leather wrist braces, but of hardened leather that was much thicker and custom-fitted to each wearer. These were known as Ma Gap (literally "horse armor-like-bone"). Since these were custom-fitted, they provided the same compression that the wraps did, plus the additional protection against injury. In modern times, stiff high-laced boots serve the same function as these ancient Ma Gap accouterments. Police, military, emergence response workers (such as fire and medical) and even bikers all require the same protection and stamina on their feet.
According to Chinese legend, leg wraps were frequently used by a unique class of warrior known as Yen Hap (hidden martial-hero). These masters were reminiscent of the Japanese Ninja or our own Robin Hood. They fought for justice, but secretly to avoid persecution from tyrannical warlords or dynasties. They used leg wraps for a slightly different purpose, primarily to silence flapping pants legs and sleeves. This allowed them to be more sneaky.
One of the heroes of the Chinese classic Outlaws of the Marsh was famous for his leg wraps. He was a messenger of legendary proportions who could travel hundreds of miles on foot each night. His skill was attributed to his Ma Gap, and his burning of special paper sacrifices bearing commands to the gods. His nickname was Sun Haung Tai Bao. Sun Huang means God of walking. Tai Bao (not to be confused with Tai Bo) originally was a term for someone who was of exceptional ability - between a god and a man. Today, it is used as a slang term for a young man who is spoiled, like a playboy. Outlaws of the Marsh has hundreds of characters so each had to have some distinguishing characteristic. For Sun Huang Tai Bao, it was his leg wraps that gave him god-like walking skills.
For many contemporary martial artists, the leg wraps are more of a fashion statement that functional. Most people are wearing them just to look like the heroes in those old Kung Fu movies. They overlook these benefits, and just wear them because it is what the shaolin monks wear. Even the celebrated Beijing Wushu Team has adopted leg wraps as part of their costumes for their most recent tour. It is very ironic. Beijing Wushu's most famous champion, Jet Li, began his fil career portraying Shaolin Monks. Today, Shaolin Temple owes much of its restoration to Jet Li since his movies brought renewwed interest to the venerated temple and its legendary Kung Fu. In fact, Shaolin Temple is almost too successful and is running into growing pains. Recently, Shaolin Temple's recent notoriety has won international recognition on several successful demonstration tours. But here, most Americans still don't know Beijing Wushu from Mushu pork. Now Beijing Wushu is emulating Shaolin's success by imitating their look, riding their wave of recent publicity and popularity. Some of their Wushu performers are doffing their colorful silks and donning the gray hues of monk gar, plus leg wraps. Next thing you know, they will be shaving their heads!
Probably the most interesting recent phenomena are the faux leg wraps that are occasionally appearing on demonstrator's forelegs nowadays. Apparently some copied the form and not the function. Faux leg wraps are usually sewn on to the sock to imitate the distinctive cross-tied pattern. These "fashion wraps" are always easy to spot because the ribbons don't always line up properly in the back, like a crooked seam. These faux wraps do imitate the look of the monks in the movies, but just the really bad movies.
If leg wraps are not tied securely, there will be little benefit to your strength, spring or stamina. It becomes a cheap costume prop. So why don't they just wear the traditional wraps? The problem is it takes some practice to tie them correctly. If they become untied, they become troublesome. Suddenly, you have this long messy shoelace to trip over.
There is an art to tying your leg wraps securely. They must be firm, yet not constrictive. As you move, the shape of your calf changes, so it you must follow the natural contours of your leg muscle as you make your ties. You may need readjusting over a long practice period., or after a particularly strenuous movement. Tying leg wraps can be time consuming, but it can also be a pre-practice meditation, a time to focus your energies on the task ahead. Learning to use these authentic leg wraps is an adjustment at first, but there is such great value in learning a traditional method, especially in Kung Fu. It gives you the direct experience and satisfaction of doing your own research, making discoveres, and honoring the ways of our martial ancestors.