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The Bo and Other Long Wooden Staff Martial Arts Weapons
Besides stones, one of the simplest weapons in human history in most cultures was a long wooden stick. This makes sense as sticks have always been readily available in the forests or could be easily crafted. Asian martial arts have developed the long wooden staff into an art form, as many martial arts styles incorporate the long staff into their systems. Some styles even have traditional weapon shapes or long-handled kata. Some martial arts systems train with weapons such as staffs only through practical techniques without the use of prescribed forms.
Unlike many martial arts weapons, such as swords, knives, daggers, and sai, which have a short range, staves are long-range weapons with excellent range. This allows the user to attack and defend from a distance, which can be frustrating from the point of view of an opponent who has a short-range weapon. Ranged weapons are also useful for keeping multiple opponents out of range. Of course, a long weapon such as a staff cannot be easily concealed like a short-range weapon, so it can be difficult to carry around.
One of the most popular types of martial arts weapons in the Japanese style of karate is the bo. Even today, it is usually the first weapon taught in karate schools, and it is the most common weapon seen in tournaments. The staff comes in different versions. There are heavy bo staffs that resemble thick poles, which are considered more traditional, and there are lighter versions that taper at both ends. There are also multi-sided pole bos, such as octagonal ones, but they are much less common than the usual round, circular versions.
Despite the fact that there are swings with one hand, most techniques involve holding the weapon with both hands. Different punches and blocks can be performed from either end of the bo, as well as the side and middle parts. Bo users take advantage of all weapons, as the technique can be performed with any part of the bo. For most techniques using a bo, the user holds the stick near the middle, with both ends extending outward equally. Traditionally, the leading hand (farthest from the body) was the right hand.
Competitions with modern weapon forms have led to the evolution of the bo, where competitors now use extremely light bos, and some even have reflective coatings that give a more vivid visual appearance when the user is performing the bo form. Unlike traditional bo forms, modern creative open bo forms involve more complex spins and even flips. Some martial artists do not consider some of the modern bo forms seen in competition to be true weapon forms, as some competitors place too much emphasis on swinging the stick rather than actual fighting techniques. This may well be a matter of personal taste. This is why most major open martial arts tournaments divide the weapon divisions into traditional and creative.
Chinese kung fu styles also use a long stick, although there are some differences in techniques compared to Japanese karate styles. Instead of holding the weapon in the middle most of the time, as a bo is held, Chinese polearms are usually held near one end, which elongates the weapon even more. Traditionally, the left hand is the leading hand, with the right hand holding the lower end of the shaft. However, there are techniques that involve switching sides as well as using the bottom end to kick. In addition to two-handed strikes, there are more one-handed techniques with Chinese staffs than with Japanese bo staffs. Similar to empty hand kung fu forms, Chinese staff forms have more circular swinging techniques than Japanese karate styles.
Modern forms of wushu use much lighter weapons than traditional forms of kung fu. Wushu stylists also use staffs or sticks made from a unique white waxwood from trees that are grown only in China. Staffs from this type of wood are not made with precision like Japanese bo. Wushu sticks are naturally tapered with a thicker bottom and thinner top. The white wax wood is extremely strong, as users of this type of Chinese staff perform techniques that involve smashing the entire weapon against the floor at full force.
Korean kuk sul won also has a long staff in its system, and the techniques used are similar to a mixture of Chinese and Japanese movements. While all martial arts styles that use weapons have more complex and perhaps more impressive weapons, the long staff remains the favorite of many martial artists.
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