The Other Side of Tradition

On the “Three Steps of Tan Tui” DVD

When your tradition is so tight you can’t breathe, then it doesn’t matter how good it looks. There is a lot of tradition in the art of Kung Fu. Three thousand years of tightening tends to cause some gasping. Other big problems with tradition can make you lazy or afraid of change. But the most dangerous aspect of tradition is simply that it is so often not tradition.

Take Karate to start. Ancient? Well, sort of. But Japanese Karate started around 1910, hardly the dawn of time. Tae Kwon Do, too, starts somewhere around 1955. Taiko drumming, though with ancient elements, derives much of its technique from a Japanese jazz drummer. I probably don’t need to tell you that Israeli Folk dancing is younger than a century, that many traditional values are not historical and that a hot dog is not really a type of dog.

TT_pict4The tradition in Kung Fu training, the real tradition handed down through centuries, is a unique and even quirky blend of common sense, uncommon beliefs and—here’s the surprise part—a great deal of creativity and variation. For an example of this last we can we talk about Adam Hsu’s newest contribution, a second DVD series on Tan Tui.

This new presentation uses the famous Tan Tui Northern Kung Fu Spring Leg form as its base. And what it does with that, building on that trunk, can be applied to any Kung Fu form that exists—guaranteed.

To review: the Tan Tui is a very famous form with a linear floor pattern that marches up and back ten or twelve times, depending on your counting. The Long Fist moves, the frozen kicks, the symmetrical sections, all give the Spring Leg a somewhat militant look with over-sized actions and quivering poses. Though many people, myself included, enjoy the structure, stress and stretch of the Tan Tui, others find it stiff and even tedious.

As Adam Hsu, always trying to improve our martial educations, points out it is not the form, it is the training that is tedious and, often worse: thoughtless.

The method given here by Adam Hsu, while he makes important comments mixed with the instruction, contradicts the idea propagated by many martial artists that “10 000 times answers all questions.” This may be a great way to build character but it is a lousy one to really increase your skills. Among other things it causes people, bored with their repetitious practice, to just start “messing around” with the forms, adding jumping, rolling some rather silly additions.

TT_pict3Adam avoids this other extreme, of just playing fast and loose with the form while trying to make it more “fun,” or in coaching for tournaments, ending up with a vanilla sparring that is no style at all and has no style. Instead, he takes the Tan Tui as it is and alters it piece by piece, yet with the art of maintaining its essence. When you are consolidating such skills, even a little change can remake the game. For instance, altering the angle of the moves, or adding those fine adjustment steps known as “cheats” evolve, under Hsu Sifu’s strong hand, into major changes such as completely recombined movements, new sequences, and a more focused and immediate concentration. Slowly, the core of the form reveals itself. This method converts what most people think of as useless, ancient gestures into effective training and powerful fighting techniques.

This approach, which transforms learned patterns into free actions, can be applied to any form offering insights and applications that appear almost as surprises and stretch your ability to think like a fighter and execute like a general.

3 Responses to “The Other Side of Tradition”

  1. Y. Pruitt says:

    This is exactly the training aid I need, because I never gained a traditional foundation. I spent three months under an actual master (Master Jian Hua Guo) in Chicago, and the rest of what I know is all movies and books. But I love the art of Gongfu and Chinese culture overall. So I will continue to pursue and practice. I recently returned to stake/post training for health purposes, and still dream of being discipled to a master. I read Inside Kung Fu magazine a lot, what can I say? Grateful to Hsu Sifu for his inspiration and thanks Plumpub!

  2. Gordon Cooper says:

    Somewhere along the line, the importance of a single technique seems to have got lost in the counting schemes and marathon sessions.

    From what I have seen it isn’t important to repeat the same thing a thousand times, but to experience that single technique as a unique event one thousand times and learn the subtle dynamics involved and develop skills to adapt to changing conditions.

  3. Jeff says:

    Modern commercial Japanese karate started in the early 1900s. Karate is far older than that, but its modern form, with belt ranks and progression and set numbers of kata, is relatively new.

    Before that, it was village martial arts. One master might know and practice three kata here, another master in a different village knew one of the other’s three kata and had two different kata of his own. A third might have studied in China and blended what he learned with old Okinawan techniques. A fourth learned his style almost without alteration from his grandfather who was a palace guard trained by Chinese envoys to Ryukyu and his karate is nearly indistinguishable from kung-fu.

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