Martial Arts and Kung Fu

By Richard Lee

The thing about oriental martial art is the romance that swirls around it, about chi, ancient combat forms and weapons, and some “death touch” (dim maak) or mystical quality.  It is tied in eastern religion, rituals such as tea ceremonies and has the concept of discipleship and family titles tied into its practice.  Your master is your “father” in the system, and he dispenses what he knows to you on his own schedule, based on how hard he sees you work and how diligent you are in your practice. The senior disciples are your older brothers, and those who come after look to you as an example in the gwoon.   

Yet Martial Arts itself is a business to the degree that rent, and equipment is worth paying for.  Even the master’s expertise as well is definitely worth paying them for their time. Yet how much is it worth?  The challenge is it’s easier to sit at the tea house and talk about martial arts, and to say, “I wouldn’t run that death touch or I’d be a murderer”, while wearing a pressed white Changshan.  It’s easy to say that those who scrap and sweat and flail are uncivilised, and that clean and precise technique will win over brute strength and raw power. It might win. Or is it just clever marketing of the martial arts, to sell the glamour found in epic wuxia movies to say that “the martial art I teach” includes the mystical and the divine, as well as the mundane?    Pay me, and you will learn my secrets- a touch that can defeat any man. 

And so the world was rocked when a self-proclaimed gentleman master of the martial arts, Wei Lei and founder of the “thunder style” tai chi in Chengdu, came up against a “crass” Xu Xiaodong, who challenged such masters to put their money where their mouth was and fight him.  Wei Lei was levelled by a flurry of punches and all of that self proclaimed training and mysticism came to naught. So it’s easy to sell oneself as a “master”, but how does one avoid being a charlatan in the eyes of the world? Is such hubris? Even afterwards martial associations such as the Chinese Wushu Association and The Chinese Boxing Association saw such a drubbing as the “morals of martial arts” being compromised.  

To me, I saw differently: in fighting, the clever marketing falls away.

In fighting, there is truth.  

You are ready or you are not.  

And Mr Wei Lei was not ready to fight Mr Xu Xiaodong.  

Yet this over-selling of the romance of the eastern martial arts has a cure in its design.  

The clue to this martial arts dilemma is in the word Kung Fu.  “功夫” means hard work, continuous and earned over a period of time, by repetition.  It is important for martial arts yes, but a glass blower does kung fu every day he makes a piece, a taxi driver and other such artisans who become the masters of their own craft, and why they also have the title sifu.  The key is the “hard work” and, in eastern philosophy, it does mean repetition of the mundane, every day.  It means being willing to be that 0.5 percent better every day through practice, sweat and improvement. Through boredom and hardship, and adversity.  It means putting the skills being cultivated to the test.

It shouldn’t be just about technique.  It should be hard training, that tests the body and the mind, and measures the efficacy of practice.  Rather than theorycrafting why “my mystical technqiue is better than yours…” … get into the ring and prove it.  Work on your fitness and athleticism, and do what it takes to have an advantage, and to mobilize at a level of readiness.  

That’s why it is important to train every week, seriously.  Other than good exercise, practice keeps up the level of readiness.  Then things should be tested with resistance- against those more senior to develop defences, and those more junior to develop technique.  There should be a level of dynamism in practice- isometric drills are acceptable in the beginning to learn a skill in detail, but then such learnings must be tested under pressure.  The best way is to get into the ring with a training partner, put the gloves on, and go at half strength.  Reserve full strength for real fights due to the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from head impacts, or other injuries… it is better to train at slightly lesser intensity consistently than to train at full strength and be sidelined for weeks or months by injury.

Train seriously.  

Take training seriously, and be ready, by doing Kung Fu.  Keep repeating, because Bruce Lee fears the man that does one kick ten thousand times.  Unless we compete, we all sincerely hope to avoid violent encounters in our lives. Yet, in such a fight, the truth comes to light- you are either ready or you are not.  You and your family survive, or they do not escape. 

Rather than talking up how great a martial system is (every disciple believes what they are learning is the best), say less about it.  Instead, train and test under pressure against training partners of different heights, weights and builds. Rather than hiding behind ceremony or  mysticism, embody fitness and athleticism in the pursuit of art. Walk the walk before talking the talk, because those who talk the most have wasted that time talking instead of training.

Ultimately that is what Kung Fu is… a continuous act of readiness, hoping that, the day we are tested for real, we are ready and not found wanting.