What Makes a Kung Fu Style Good?

I had originally typed this title as “What Makes a Good Kung Fu Style?” The crippled grammar aside, I changed it because I realized that, with the right type of training, the style doesn’t need to start as a winner. Proper sewing and tucking can make a style good assuming there’s a modicum of quality in the fabric at the onset.

The experience of Kung Fu has three legs: the style, the school and the teacher. People sometimes mistakenly think that a traditional teacher need only pass on the information handed to him to qualify as a good and true instructor. But a teacher who adds nothing of himself can actually harm a student and a style. I’ve had teachers who believed in this heritage myth to such a degree they made little personal effort to prune the dead limbs. (See our piece on Abysmal Teachers).

What makes for a good style? Or what makes a style good? Here are a few ideas, most being pretty simple and plain, but if you think that “traditional” Kung Fu is essentially a series of dead rituals passed on to living hands, you may find a few new twists here.

Well defined, relevant basics have to be first on our list. Punching while standing in a square horse is a well-defined basic: the question is, how relevant is it to authentic training? Of course this consideration, and all that follow, are based on the style itself which—who knows ?—might have some wonderful technique based on the square horse. But in most cases the square horse punching warm up should be dispensed with after about two months of training. It gives the student the wrong idea. It even wastes her time. Its greatest advantage? You don’t have to switch sides to practice punching. In the long run this is not a significant gain compared to  all the leg positioning and waist turning you learn from having a lead side forward.

Basics should be representative of the system. My early Kenpo days showed a good example, because the “basics” were, frankly, stolen from Shotokan and it was a pretty sad fit. Stand in the horse, punch, punch, punch; then practice speedy techniques that were qualitatively and physically different from your own basics. Then, when kicking became a craze, they stole from TKD. Another bad fit.  Eventually they formed a hybrid of some truly ugly proportions, a sort of FranKenpo of sewn together parts. It didn’t mater much because when people practiced their core techniques, they just forgot their basics and went straight ahead with the real stuff.

A style of Kung Fu is like a toolbox. The tools matching—all metric, etc.—can be a big help in the beginning. If it’s real Kung Fu there will be a pleasant resonance between basics and the rest of the style. Some people call this a Mother/Son relationship where all the variety are visibly indebted to the universal basics which prepare the student for building and adapting. It is a nice addition if the forms are beautiful to behold and fun to practice. But their main attribute should be that they look like they grow out of the basics.

Yet we see styles all the time where you can barely recognize that the basics are related to the style. Let’s look at some good examples this time around. Baji basics and forms are almost indistinguishable except that you do both sides when you run the basics. That’s actually a tell. If you are watching an unfamiliar style and you can’t distinguish if you are seeing someone practicing a form or basics that’s a good thing (assuming forms and basics are not both horrible). What do forms add? They should present problems to the basics of continuity. Yes, your Pi Split move is finally feeling natural, but you now have to do it at this angle and follow it up with this kick. More problem! Right.

Forms, basics and usage should show at least some thread running through all these pearls. It is sometimes almost impossible, in Kung Fu’s present sorry state, to see the correlation in each and every specific style. Long Fist, for example, is a disaster. It’s lengthy history has separated it from its “meaning.” It’s the reason so many Kung Fu instructors are really teaching Kick Boxing or MMA and training the forms for competition but not information.

This makes the next section absolutely mandatory. A good style has partner practice and usage. The usage might include sparring, straight applications and even fighting. The partner practice should concentrate on rather slow application of basic skills practiced in pairs. It should offer that irreplaceable feel of working with another human being. Talking about the wine is not the same as tasting it, and only personal contact can call up the immediate, unvarnished truth. I encourage (force) every one of my Tai Chi students to at least do partner work to sense what the single person form should be. Experiencing the original makes you act that much more honestly and sincerely. At the same time, I make sure everyone knows that fighting should never be seen as the end of the line. What we feel and learn in any usage should be brought back to our form, folded in, then brought back to the fighting. The experiential and the theoretical should, as in science, stay mutually supportive.

Finally, there should be some “meditative” training, whether focused on stances, breathing or even just making copious notes in your journal. There is a martial experience for the student outside the confines of the style, the school and the community. She should be encouraged to internal journeys with a reflection on her own unique training. Call it that particular style’s Qigong, (and this should also resonate with the rest) or call it relaxation training, but the search for internal balance is not to be ignored. Like sleep, important things which have no other way to communicate themselves, are often brought forward in the dusk of stillness. Trust me on this

3 Responses to “What Makes a Kung Fu Style Good?”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Another gem. “Frankenpo” ha,ha! Funny. =)

  2. Mike Mercede says:

    I have to second that. “Frankenpo” needs to be added to some dictionary somewhere! One thing I would say about pruning dead limbs. I can think of many times when I thought something was a useless artifact of time and bad communication, only later to come to the realization that within this incongruous posture or movement was hidden a jewel, something about alignment, or using the core, or making the transition, something that body needed to learn to make sense of so many other things I thought I knew. Pruning is a scary business.

  3. Ted says:

    I agree completely but my idea of pruning here is strictly in the sense of making things more consistent. You don’t cut out the good stuff. In fact that “incongruous posture” is probably the first clue. When you prune you are attempting to make the tree more itself, aid in its lift and eliminate cross branches where the tree actually attacks itself. Real pruning will make those treasure-moves you speak of MORE evident and immediate.

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