Eenie Meenie Minie Fu

In the introduction to his book, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, Bill Bryson suggests that “nursery rhymes…are fastidiously resistant to change” and later continues:

“Eenie, meenie, minie, mo” is based on a counting system that predates the Roman occupation of Britain, that may even be pre-Celtic. If so, it is a rare surviving link with the very distant past. It not only gives us a fragmentary image of how children were being amused at the time Stonehenge was built, but tells us something about how their elders counted and thought and ordered their speech. Little things, in short, are worth looking at.”

At first, after reading Bryson’s passage, I thought:  “Nursery rhymes, Forms, hmmm….pretty similar.” A Kung Fu form is an encyclopedia, containing information not only about its parent style, but also about its teacher, usage, and even about the performance itself.  When you  look at a traditional form, you are not looking at just a pretty face, but all the genetic material–if you will–that went into building that pretty face: the theories, principles, bones and tendons of its style. A form is an organized summary of the components of a style.

But when I reread the paragraph something else struck me: this link with the distant past comes through not just in forms but in the everyday practice of kung fu. And one of the things it tells us is how people perceived their world hundreds or, in some cases thousands of years ago.

To say, for instance, that a good part of Kung Fu is based on animals, is only to hint at what that really means; the fact that there ARE animal styles tells us much about the nature of life 500 or 1000 years ago. Our kung fu ancestors spent time observing animals as part of their natural day; they didn’t have to make a point to ‘commune with nature’ as so many of us do. The FACT of animal styles suggests a human intimacy with the environment that implies time, contemplation, appreciation, all leading to translation from the one world to the other. Just as counting rhymes tell us about childrens play at the time of Stonehenge, animal styles tell us about human interaction with nature.

Another revelation is the internal aspect to martial arts. Yes, in the 21st century we take advantage of what has come before, what was developed by our foreteachers, but think for a minute about what we would develop NOW if we did not have those to fall back on. These kung fu masters, medically unsophisticated from a modern point of view, built styles and systems, balanced for the human body. When we practice a traditional style now, we are gazing back at ideas hundreds of years before our time, and it would not be out of line to contemplate, for a minute, what thought might have gone into this. It’s not enough to say, “they were moving chi”; just the fact that chi was a tangible concept is fascinating. They did not have to ‘accept’ the idea of chi, it was a part of their culture.

We can read history and learn about times before our own, even lay back and dream ourselves into the picture, imagine ourselves 1000 years earlier. But in kung fu, as in language, we are actually bringing the past forward. When you move in kung fu today you are also moving 1000 years ago and 1000 years in the future.