This month in Martial Arts Magazine we talk with Master Roger D'Onofrio who is a Master of San Quan Dao Chinese Boxing. If you are not familiar with this style, sit back, relax, and let's take a journey with Master D'Onofrio.
1. B.S. - Master D'Onofrio please describe your history in the martial arts. When did you begin your training?
R.D. - So many years and names have passed, but I will try to give as clear a picture as possible. My first training began in 1960, when I was eleven years of age, with a book, a series actually, weights and a sand filled canvas bag. The books were by Bruce Tegner, a man famous to some and infamous to others. I note that because even the man I call Teacher, Dr. Paul Olson, had distaste for him. However at that young age, his books were easy to follow and I got a basic understanding of strikes, kicks and some usable self-defense techniques. At twelve, I began studying with Sensei Lou Bianchi in upstate New York. This was the man, who got me hooked on martial arts, as I was at the dojo every night and on Saturdays, and who also encouraged me to seek out other teachers. What's of interest was that almost everyone I studied with was cross-trained. Sensei Bianchi was a student of Tegner's, but also studied with Fumio Demura (Shito Ryu), and Joe Lewis (Okinawa Te). At fourteen, a Chito Ryu practitioner started frequenting the dojo, and I was fortunate enough to study some of the differences he applied in martial arts. This training, along with high school boxing, lasted until I left for Connecticut in 1967. For a year I passed from one dojo to another, learning basic aspects of Goju Ryu, Uechi Ryu and Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do. It was at this last school, headed by Sensei Bob Cheezic, that I met my teacher, Dr. Paul Olson, founder of San Quan Dao Quan Shu (Three Fist Chinese Boxing). Although he had his own school, Dr Olson had been cross training for some twenty odd years, and this was another stop along the way. His approach to martial arts was guttural, street wise, and definitely unique. Through him I learned how to be myself. How to apply my abilities and thoughts to martial movements, and how to seek out the root to techniques used in other martial arts. Also, I learned Onaka's approach to Rymbukan Ryu, Daniel Pai's Chinese Kenpo, Kim Patel's White Butterfly, Chin Duk Kwan, and a hybrid of Julin (Jook Lum) Praying Mantis. Some of these I studied under their respective Masters, others I learned through Dr. Olson's interpretation, as he was high ranked in numerous fighting arts.
2. B.S. - There are so many reasons to get involved in martial arts whether it be love of style/forms/self defense/etc. What made you get involved in martial arts?
R.D. - The bottom line was fitness and self defense. At eleven I was quite small, and was tired of befriending the biggest kid in school so that I would feel safe. Of course, like many martial arts enthusiasts of the early '60's, Bruce Lee, as Kato in the Green Hornet, was a tremendous factor.
3. B.S. - What dos your training schedule look like? Aerobics/Weight training etc?
R.D. - I presume this refers to the here and now. Weight training was an intrinsic part since the beginning. Both my first and last teachers encouraged it, and it does help in both muscle control and understanding my body. Through different times of my life, this training would fluctuate from three to six days a week, one to two hours per session (no, I didn't include talk time). Now this training is down to perhaps two hours per week, and is normally designated to legs, back and shoulder work. Aerobics usually constituted running, skipping rope and bag work, Again, there was a fluctuation of duration, intensity and frequency, but never less than an hour every other day. This type of training has been decreased to two hours per week. In addition, I teach all my classes (eight-ten per week), and I work out right along with my students in class as I critique their performance.
4. B.S. - Do you feel aerobics and weight training are a valuable addition to martial arts training?
R.D. - Yes. But for those with limited time, they should feel confident that any good martial arts workout will give them plenty of aerobic training, as well as general conditioning. However, those wishing to fight in the ring or considering martial arts as a profession, will find additional aerobic and weight training invaluable.
5. B.S. - Tell us about San Quan Dao Chinese Boxing.
R.D. - This would take a book or two to do justice, so here is a short synopsis. Recognized by the Republic of China's Kuoshu Federation, san quan dao was founded in the 1960's by the late Dr. Paul Olson, and strongly influenced by the late Daniel K. Pai of Pai Lum Kung Fu. This discipline is structured around principles that make all movements correct and natural to human anatomy. San quan dao realizes that recognition of inherent abilities in each individual, and the students' understanding of their own limitations is important for growth. Therefore this discipline doesn't lock the practitioner into rigid movements or techniques. San quan dao literally means the way of three fists, a term that can describe its principles regarding distance, softness and aggressiveness, but actually refers to the three fists from which it is comprised: Pai Lum (White Dragon), Julin (southern Praying Mantis), and Patangi Karit (White Butterfly).
Distance training is combined with wu gong qi, a principle covering every aspect of angles, distance and height fitting all arm and foot movements. Postures such as faking web spider help to draw the opponent into close range, while the short continuous strikes of the mantis enhance the san quan dao practitioner's close in fighting skills. San quan dao uses various natural postures along with the attitudes and fighting aspects of its inherent fists to teach its students varied and individualized methods for dealing with realistic street scenarios. An example would be the way the faking web spider posture is used, when the san quan dao practitioner is trapped against a wall. As the opponent strikes his movement might be deflected in and downward, off balancing the opponent, while drawing him closer to the san quan daoist. As the assailant is sucked in, his head would be grabbed. The opponent can then be taken down with a quick twist of his head and neck. Monkey steps are sometimes used to enhance agility, while the dragon movements, though effective at long range, strengthen the trapping and off-balancing skills of the practitioner. Wu gong qi, referred to as the five-direction principle, includes movements of outside to inside, inside to outside, overhand circular, underhand circular and linear or straight line. These movements can be applied aggressively or passively and contribute heavily to the natural effectiveness of the san quan daoist
This aspect of san quan dao covers several areas. Breathing, skeletal alignment, body mechanics and mind/body integration (qi) are enhanced through the continuous flow of wu gong qi movements and by practicing the qin xi (translated as invade and attack) form of san quan dao, which consists of various movements and attitudes of tai qi quan. Another would be learning to blend or flow with the opponent while working weapons or grappling. To enhance this ability the san quan daoist applies the attitude and principles of the White Butterfly. Here soft might become hard, as in double deflections followed by rebounding counters. or tenacious, through sticking to the opponent, such as in grappling practice. The students also learn from this fist to become one with weapons such as sticks and knives, by truly making them an extension of themselves and the movements they know.
The underlining philosophy in san quan dao is always aggressiveness, consisting of a total commitment to the action or reaction necessary to survive. The students strive to move with no conscious effort and no hesitation. It is always aimed at disabling the opponent-quickly and efficiently. Evasive moves and attacks to the opponent's limbs are used rather than blocks, thus allowing the practitioner to concentrate on aggressive counters. Entries against attacks are taught from day one. These consist of slotting (moving directly into the attacker), 45 degree and enter (a combination of entering and evading, quickly turned into a counter attack), and the 45 degree walk on by (an evasive move designed to get the san quan daoist behind the opponent). Defense against weapons also takes the aggressive approach, forcing commitment by the attacker. These moves are an interaction of soft and hard, and like the advanced fighters of this discipline, abruptly change from one fist to another in chameleon like fashion. While not an old martial art, san quan dao combines the principles and techniques of much older fighting styles, putting them into a modern format designed to withstand the test of time. My teacher was very adamant about one particular aspect of martial arts as it pertains to various styles. He would say, "that all that is being taught now has been taught before and will be taught again in the future. The only real differences are the names and methods of presentation", and as I reflect, that's a lot.
6. B.S. - It seems this art is a direct approach to self defense. Since many techniques are disabling can one train for a sport aspect in the art?
R.D. - This poses an interesting question, and again I'll make the presumption that you are referring to non-contact tournaments. Forms are very often an elongated version of usable street movements. Sport is street without the necessary commitment to contact to be effective. I firmly believe that what one practices is what they will do in the moment of survival. In San Quan Dao students are taught to hit with intent, and do practice making full contact, whether that be against focus gloves, air shields, water bags or in sparring. In the early days of my training under Dr. Olson, we did occassionally participate in tournaments. More often than not, we would be disqualified for excessive contact. Some of my students have gone the way of the ring, some successfully, others not. I believe that the individual might be able to make the transition, but it would be like asking a boxer to pull his punches at will; the movement would lose something in the translation. Easily said not so easily done.
7. B.S. - Are there many differences in this system as opposed to other Chinese arts?
R.D. - There are numerous aspects to this discipline. One of these is the inherent fact that it is a living art. By this I mean that it was designed, so to speak, to allow for innovation and growth as times changed and to encompass the varied cross-training of its teachers. I certainly don't know every Chinese art that exists. What I do know is that much of what a student learns is based on the presentation of the art, s/he is studying, by their teacher. This alone would create diversity in any given art. Compound this by the downstairs, upstairs, and inner circle training found in Chinese arts and you will again find variations to the theme. This would certainly explain the much infighting prevalent in some Chinese martial arts. But to answer your question, San Quan Dao takes a street survival approach to teaching. Though many of our movements can be found in other Chinese styles, it probably won't look quite the same, and here you go back to presentation equals perception (with a touch of ability) equals art form.
8. B.S. - You say the art is formless. Please explain.
R.D. - By formless we mean a recognition that individuality exists. San Quan Dao is based on body motion, not on technique. Let me try to explain this. Technique gives meaning to a movement within a given situation. Something I call pigeon holing. It tends to limit the creative side of the practitioner, because although that same technique might have many uses, the student might not be aware of it until if and when the teacher passes the information on to him/her. This all to often is in the guise of a new technique. I would agree that this is fine from a classical approach, and certainly basics should be understood equally by any would be teacher. However, here we add the concept that a Chinese Boxer should be encouraged to think, use their imagination, and experiment with what they know, in order to more fully grasp from day one what they are being taught.
9. B.S. - You mentioned San Quan Dao is based on the principles of Wu Kung Qi and Wu Dao. What are the histories behind those?
R.D. - These are rather simple principles employed in San Quan Dao. Wu Kung Qi refers to the five directions of movements described in question (5) under sub-heading Distance. Wu Dao refers to the five steps employed in close quarter combat. The following steps can be used in striking or grappling sequences. Evade (move out of the way), Enter (close the gap between you and the opponent), Absorb (make physical contact with the attacker), Blend (once contact is made, move with the opponent, using their movements to improve your counters), Control (joint locks, chokes, take downs and knock-outs fall into this category). The first three steps are normally performed simultaneously. The last two steps depend on the opponent's reaction, the defender's ability, and the seriousness of the attack.
10. B.S. - You've instructed Green Berets. Since that approach has to be no holds barred for survival, is this something that continues in training at the current school?
R.D. - The key words are instructed and training. Even when teaching survival, there must be a point of control. Dislocations, neck breaks, and choke outs were only taken to the point of pain and the feeling of going under. Working with knives was a matter of teaching short cuts to control and variations to attacks for familiarity and quick response. All in all, I would have to say that indeed this has carried over to present training. Here I must note that my teacher was very big on training for worst case scenarios, so mostly this was an easy transition to make.
11. B.S. - Your school teaches more than one variety of martial arts? What are the other arts?
R.D. - I didn't know that, but it would be an easy mistake to make. As one might guess there has been a good deal of cross training involved in my path to learning martial arts. Indeed this was also true of my teacher. San Quan Dao is predominantly comprised of the fighting aspects of three martial arts as mentioned earlier, and at Senior Master level one is taught the essence of all other arts, which the head of our discipline has learned. As time passes it becomes more difficult to differentiate what movements came from where, but as this is an evolving discipline, it doesn't really matter. All training falls under the umbrella of San Quan Dao. There is a constant adding and revising to suit the needs of the time as well as that of the students, but never do we forsake the core of the discipline.
12. B.S. - Over the years…it seems a lot of practitioners are finding that cross training (in other martial arts) is very beneficial to them. Do you find students that attend your school try to attain knowledge of various arts or are they simply students of one particular art?
R.D. - Since the inception of San Quan Dao, there has always been a disproportionate number of students, who have had from a few months to several years of training elsewhere, that have gravitated to our school. I suppose they are trying to fill in the blanks left in their training by other teachers. Though many come with good techniques, they generally lack emotional content and commitment to their movements. San Quan Dao definitely fills this void. We allow these students to be themselves, and to use our approach to enhance their abilities. We do not subtract what they have learned, but rather encourage them to seek a deeper and clearer understanding of what they know. I truly feel that those who cross train in the martial arts are seeking a natural way to express themselves. Not every student has the physical or mental make up of the teacher. Therefore it can be frustrating to train in a do as I do environment, which predominates the classical world. Let me say here that no one has all the answers, so to fully grow in the martial arts it would seem natural to learn as much as possible. However, there is nothing wrong with students staying within a martial art they love and enjoy, because within time they to will evolve and gain a deeper understanding of what they were taught. This generally happens to most Masters, and if I can digress back to the question on differences in San Quan Dao as opposed to other Chinese arts, you will remember that I stated that the downstairs, upstairs and inner circle training found in many Chinese arts would create variations to the learning theme of that art. Another aspect is the natural growth of the teacher. As time passes, light bulbs flash, and the teacher realizes that there exists a number of sub paths within their style. Once this occurs, very often the teacher will start to deviate his/her presentations to the students. To some it appears to be a different art, but in reality it is the same art seen with different, perhaps more mature eyes. At this level of understanding, the teacher might emphasize different areas of the style than were taught prior to this occurrence. To this extent, students of different periods being taught by the same teacher might appear to have been taught different arts. Not true. It is generally the same art taught from a different perspective. Certainly my teacher did this, and even such great teachers as Daniel K, Pai of Pai Lum Kung Fu and Morihei Ueshiba of Aikido taught this way.
13. B.S. - Is the style one that a child can learn easily?
R.D. - As was mentioned earlier, San Quan Dao stresses a natural approach to body movement. Straight-line strikes can be seen as one reaching for a cup, or pressing an elevator button. Circles, depending on the direction, can be equated to slamming doors, throwing a book on a table, side snapping a towel, or the under hand pitching of a Frisbee. Kicks are taught in similar manner. Therefore the motions can be learned quite easily by a child. However, the purpose of these moves is normally deleted when teaching children. Note: I rarely teach children.
For a child this should be a time not only of discipline, but one of fun while learning coordination, balance and fitness. San Quan Dao teaches in away that the movements carry over into other activities, such as volleyball, baseball, etc.
14. B.S. - Do you continue to involve yourself in seminars? What are they like?
R.D. - Yes I do. The seminars I teach are twofold. Those taught with Sensei Hans Goto, 6th degree black belt in Aikido, and student of Master Morihiro Saito, use the street approach of San Quan Dao coupled with classical Aikido techniques. Those, which I teach alone, can encompass any of the aspects of San Quan Dao. Although, most often these seminars deal with use of and defense against the knife. As a Professor, certified by the American Teachers Association of the Martial Arts (ATAMA), I participate in and teach workshops to this group. In addition, I am always looking locally for worthwhile seminars to attend.
15. B.S. - What is you immediate goal for San Quan Dao?
R.D. - Right now, my goal is to continue promoting the benefits of San Quan Dao to the public and to the martial arts world, and to elevate select students to qualified teacher status in hopes that some will open their own schools. Though there are several certified teachers in this country, those that teach have elected to do so only privately. San Quan Dao will continue to grow and evolve as was the intention of my late teacher.
You can find out more about this very interesting martial art at www.sanquandao.com
Visit Master D'Onofrio's Website at