Kung Fu in the Next Century

Which Kung Fu styles will survive through the 21st-century? There is obviously some tendency right now, some movement you might call it, to consolidate a lot of Chinese martial arts into fewer and fewer styles. This is ultimately a good thing. Many of the so-called styles throughout the centuries have simply been the result of fragmentation, or created through false premises like this style or that is too soft, or even misunderstood names and designations.   art_survivors4   Some were duplicated but really constitute the same style with different monikers. I think that people take styles far too seriously, not just in the simple sense—that names don’t mean much—also because names are just an effect, never a cause. People did not set out to create styles until fairly recently. They are often created then just to record those observations significant to some expert. This special information ended up appended to a body of existing knowledge. The idea was not to start from scratch reinventing the basics over and over.

The growth and demise of styles fits perfectly into the Chinese view of history; one of expansion and contraction which, when you think about it, is pretty true throughout all civilizations and all political systems. Why should Kung Fu be any different? For me, many, in fact most, styles, are 90% the same information though, admittedly customized to each particular flavor. The basics may differ a bit but the goal of the basics are the same.

With that in mind, let me guess at some of the styles that will exist in the 22nd century. I think it’s obvious the Tai Chi is in for a long run. I believe Bagua Zhang is turning toward the same corner. I think the reason for the longevity of the first is not the reason for the second. They are quite different. Tai Chi is a style with, at least at first glance, easy access. It has the advantage of being easily available for the rank beginner as well as the more advanced student. Of course Bagua Zhang has, in theory, also a level one beginners class. But even that is based on walking circles, a surprisingly difficult way to commence. What Bagua Zhang offers is a high degree of compression that allows you to incorporate all of your previous Chinese martial knowledge and retain it in this new style. Bagua Zhang, in other words, is the perfect style to absorb other martial styles. So Tai Chi seems simplest and Bagua Zhang appeals to martial artists, and these attributes will probably insure the long life of both these styles.

art_survivors3Some styles I think will survive because they are unique in characteristics and appearance. For instance I vote for Praying Mantis to last a long time. It is just too neat a style to disappear. In addition to having practical value it is highly individual, fun to do, and has many levels of practice. I also believe that Wing Chun will survive, but quite possibly may be absorbed into other styles as Sticky Hands. In a sense we see that already happening with styles like JKD that combines Wing Chun, Kenpo, and Escrima.

Shaolin will probably survive but possibly in a form that would disappoint most current martial artists. I can almost see it becoming a performing art and, worst of all, a performing art attempting to call back a great deal of Shaolin history which never existed in the first place. The problem with Shaolin is not that it will disappear but that the name will become so common as to signify nothing. After all, Shaolin became what it is by absorbing many styles, some of which are blossoming back out.

Xing Yi and Xin Yi, may well flourish in the future. They will continue to be represented into the next century because of their clarity, simplicity and no-nonsense approach. I have doubts about a cousin style, Yi Quan, which doesn’t seem to have as many ready fighters as in the past to defend its unique approach. Plus there is a complexity to the style that may deter it.

art_survivors1Some reduction will come from assimilation. I think that it is more than likely for many of the Long Fist styles such as Cha, Hong, and Hua; to be unified into one style. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We can imagine, for instance, Tong Bei as a likely candidate for continued practice. In addition it may well absorb PiGua, since that style is already one of Tong Bei’s constituents. It’s been said that the Lau Southern Kung Fu style had three forms, all of which were absorbed completely into the Hung Family fist. We cannot forget that absorption is better than extinction in many cases. I know, this may smack a little of “resistance is futile;” but, in a sense, this is just a shift of light in the scenery; it does not affect the underlying landscape.

I remember Adam Hsu telling me that he once attended a great meeting on the mainland of the assembled leaders of the Cha style. This Muslim style has three separate branches, each of them supposedly supported by a series of 10 hand forms. None of the three branches still retain a complete set of the ten hand forms. Nonetheless, there remain quite a number of Cha forms, not to mention an exhaustive group of weapons set. Adam queried the venerable assemblage as to whether or not so many forms containing so many repetitions were actually essential. The elders agreed, “Absolutely not!” He continued, “couldn’t we boil everything down into three forms?” They agreed. His follow up response was “Why not do that? Concentrate all the information of the sets into three key forms?” Everyone also agreed to the idea; but then hurried to say it could not be done; they could not turn their backs on the traditional inheritance they were trying to maintain.

art_survivors2Some fine styles seem to be dwindling already. Candidates might be: Liu He, Zi Ran, Mi Zong, Cotton Fist, Bafa, Pak Mei, Baji Quan, Tang Quan, Mok Gar and others. My crystal ball just isn’t clear on this. Of course it’s arbitrary. I think Eagle Claw might not survive but Tiger Claw will; I have no rational argument for this belief.

Some styles die because their teachers take the secrets with them, some because they have no clear lineage, some because the inheritors don’t know enough to keep the key points clear. When this last happens people may go to fight without enough of the style to make it work, and thereby they become ridiculous and misrepresentative of their own art.

The issue of cultural conservation is more important that it might seem. Everything in our human heritage can be replaced, deleted or forgotten but is that the best thing to do? Consolidation, of the best and most authentic material of course, allows us not only to retain the wisdom of a human past, but to pay honor by its preservation.

Anyway, what about you? Which styles do you think will make it across the bridge?

15 Responses to “Kung Fu in the Next Century”

  1. Stan Meador says:

    Really interesting idea here! I certainly don’t have a broad enough knowledge to address many styles. That said, I wonder about Choy Lay Fut. It was a consolidation, if I understand correctly. But, the vast number of forms in the system make me wonder how many in the 21st Century would be able to learn them all. I think the system, if it survives into the 22nd Century, will lose some of the forms.

    If I could ask one question about this topic it would be this – How do you see this playing out where some regions of the world have greater access to some styles than to others? For example, Choy Lay Fut seems to have a strong presence in Australia, but seems to be less prominent in the West. Do you think some styles will survive, and even thrive, regionally into the 22nd Century?

  2. Plum Staff says:

    Great question, Stan! With over 100 forms to master, your example of Choy Lay Fut is right on. After all, CLF itself was an amalgamation of 3 styles; not to mention the Buck Shing branch that also has the northern shaolin sets in its curriculum. CLF must condense to survive. For instance, having numerous staff forms only makes sense if there is new information in some of those forms, eliminating needless repetition. In its way, CLF alone mimics the whole process in its entirety.

    Your point about local preservation is right; preservation will be spotty, with places like Malaysia holding onto its White Crane heritage.

  3. Jeff says:

    I also don’t have a broad enough knowledge to say, but I know from my own experience that if kung fu had to rely on my particular area of the country to survive, it would already be dead. There’s one guy here, teaching a style he calls Shaolin, and I have no idea what that means. Also, there are several people teaching Tai Chi as part of their yoga/zoomba/pilates curriculum.

  4. DavidFromDenver says:

    This is a very thought-provoking essay. Esp considering the previous CLF question. Simple is not easy. Easy is not simple. AK-47 efficiency? I read you enough to know your preferences. Xingyi survives. OK. Pigua survives. OK. But Baji does not? No criticism implied. But why?

  5. miles says:

    my thought is based on what ive seen for 35 years..any style that people with limited time and attention spans can do will survive. Many of the shaolin styles are treasure systems.. they are repositories of vast amounts of info and beyond the average American to commit to. As a sifu of southern kung fu and an herbalist who specializes in hit medicine I believe the health practices of Chinese martial arts will survive..there is tremendous interest in the healing side of kung fu and that’s what im teaching more than any thing now days!

  6. Rick says:

    An interesting essay, and one that gets to my own concerns. So many arts are in danger of disappearing entirely, including my own core art. My Sifu is the last of his Sihingdai teaching. He is doing his best to pass the art on to us, but there are few of us, and he is growing old. And how can he pass his art to anybody unless he has students who understand? And even if he does have students who understand, at least somewhat, and who practice, at least as much as they can in today’s busy world, it takes time to pass knowledge on. It’s not something that can be acquired overnight.

    So time is one enemy in keeping these arts alive. Lack of interested students is another. Excess secrecy another. How much of the art is understood by the Sifu, and whether the Sifu can teach, and whether the students understand, and by how much they understand. And politics—sometimes amounting to petty squabbling over the pie, but sometimes revealing a more genuine dispute about the art. All eating away at the Chinese martial arts.

    I’m doing what I can to keep my own rare art alive for another generation, and there are 1 or 2 other rare arts I would like to keep alive, given the time and opportunity to do so.

    Which seems like a bit of a conundrum to me, because I’m now at a place where “style” seems to me to not be a destination, but a vehicle to get there.

    All that said, I think the styles that have the most practitioners now will be the styles that survive into the future. Wing Chun and Hung Gar are obvious candidates. Possibly Northern Shaolin.

    Styles which will be more difficult to preserve are the ones that take decades to learn. Choy Lay Fut simply has too many forms for any one person to learn well. So do some of the Jing Mo styles. I would love to learn Northern Eagle Claw, but I simply don’t have 20 years to dedicate to learning all of the system before I even get to the core material (And I think that is your rational argument for why Eagle Claw will not survive, but Tiger Claw will). Unless these large systems can consolidate their systems down to the important core information, they may not survive. Just a guess, of course. In my opinion, if they want to survive the large systems need to preserve the important core information, and consolidate all of the duplicative and non-core material into fewer forms.

    Almost certain to disappear (without a concerted rescue effort) will be the rare styles with few practitioners. And that’s unfortunate. I agree that much of the information translates across styles, but the unique insights of past masters as contained in the styles they passed on to us should be preserved (and more importantly, understood), as much as possible, in my opinion. I will do my best to keep one or more alive; hopefully others here will do the same.

  7. Thomas Kiefer says:

    I agree with many commentators’ statements above about the time issue: Modern life is not conducive to learning these arts, even just the martial side. For example, if I remember correctly, one branch of Yin Style Ba Gua included not only the animals and palm changes, and all the weapons, but also massage and other healing systems. So I think we’re already underway in the loss of the whole of each major art, with everything but the basics disappearing.

    Perhaps Yang Style Tai Chi is an (ominous) example for the future. It appears to have survived, but the martial aspect of the system seems to have been completely lost (e.g., the full martial use of peng, for starters), as well as all of the instruction one had to do *before* one could start learning the long form –and forget about Yang Luchan’s long spear form, from which one learned fa jing in his system. That seems to be extinct. I have had to examine other martial systems for clues as to how Yang style was meant to be fought, and perhaps that is the future for most that survive. (By the way, I’m so jealous that Ba Gua has so many decent books coming out! Compare that to the books on Yang Style Tai Chi, and I think that evinces my point a little.)

    Also, modern life seems conducive to the ‘buffet’ table approach to learning–one studies one style for a year, then moves on to another, one picks up a technique here, another there, a weapon from over there–and in that way, one really doesn’t learn much of anything. That will probably hasten extinction.

  8. Rick says:

    Yang Tai Chi Chuan is an interesting example. In my opinion, although he made Yang style wildly popular, Yang Chengfu has also effectively killed Yang Luchan’s art. So we have a version of Yang style that is both wildly popular and widely practiced, while Yang Luchan’s art is near-extinct.

    One would have to search carefully to find and piece together the remnants of Yang Luchan’s Tai Chi Chuan. It is still possible to find Yang style in the Yang Banhou and Yang Shaohou lineages, but for how long?

    There is also the Guangping lineage, but excess secrecy has resulted in only two people knowing the “Application Set” that teaches the martial applications of their Yang form. That is but one textbook example of how styles are lost.

    Finally, Scott Rodell teaches Michuan Yang, which comes through the Yang Jianhou lineage. Sifu Rodell has dedicated himself to keeping the Yang martial tradition alive, doing what I suggested is necessary above— finding and piecing together the remnants of Yang Luchan’s art. He does teach Yang spear, but only at the highest level and by invitation only.

    In a world where “Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise and moving meditation” on the one hand, and “martial art” is MMA on the other hand, will anybody care if Yang Luchan’s art survives?

  9. Rick says:

    Thomas, your example of the healing aspects of the arts is an example that hits home for me. My Si Tai Gung learned both the martial art and the healing art from his master at the temple. In turn, my Sigung learned both the martial art and healing art. My Sifu learned all of the martial art, and started to learn the healing art, but had to interrupt his studies when he went away to university. While he was at university, his master became ill with cancer, and died, and my Sifu was never able to complete his study of the healing art.

    Theoretically, I could reunite the healing art with the martial art. Si Tai Gung’s family is still practicing healing at their clinic. I suppose I could learn Chinese to a sufficient degree of fluency, save enough money, and take enough time off to travel to China to learn the healing art and bring the martial art and healing art back together. But realistically, that is not very likely.

    Alternatively, I could learn a healing art here in the United States, but again, time and money become an issue. Do I spend my time learning the martial art while my Sifu is still teaching, or do I take time away from that to learn a healing art? For me, the answer is clear. Maybe the healing art will have to wait for a different generation to recover.

  10. Stan Meador says:

    Thinking more about this topic has brought to my mind another potential issue. Space. Some kung fu styles require a lot of space for their forms. And, by the time the 22nd Century rolls around, how many people will have that much real estate for practice? Globalization and urbanization will likely play a huge role in the demise of many styles, simply because people don’t have enough room to practice forms. I think this is less of a concern for styles like Wing Chun, which are pretty compact already.

    Looking through the DVDs on Plum’s web site, I see an effort by a group in New York to create new forms that keep the essence of style, but reduce the amount of space necessary to practice. Is anyone else working to make their kung fu more compact?

    A previous comment noted that a Yang Tai Chi Spear is nearly extinct. Do you think most of the traditional Kung Fu weapons will fall into extinction even if the hand forms survive? Which weapons do you think will survive? I personally think the staff will always survive, though we may see more of a shift to the walking stick and cane as opposed to the long pole. I think broadsword will survive and straight sword probably too, though levels of proficiency may wane with the latter. I don’t know whether the spear will survive. I do suspect the knife work will become more prominent, maybe the butterfly swords too. I am very glad to see Plum’s DVD/book combination for the Pu Dao, but I don’t know whether that weapon will survive into the 22nd Century. Obviously we don’t need a full prediction list for weapons, but what do others think about this aspect of kund fu – will most of the traditional weapons disappear in this century?

  11. Plum Staff says:

    Of course we’re all speculating here. I see Pigua surviving because it’s absorbed into Tong Bei. As far as Baji, a great style, I think the real Baji training is too rigorous and concentrated to survive intact.I saw the same thing happen with Kenpo, with its 20 forms and 200 techniques, in one or two generations the skill level plumetted, not in every case, certainly, but epidemically. Baji has a lot of technique finesse, but people who won’t perform 9 breaths training, or the Baji dummy and all the rest will allow what seems to me to be a “virtual Baji” to survive. You could say that about any Kung Fu style but some are more prone to it than others.

    By the way, great responses from everyone!

  12. Ezequiel says:

    Very interesting discussion topic. I agree with most of what is said here, I just have a few things I’d like to add.

    First, when we talk about Shaolin, what are we talking about? The style as practiced at the temple, Ku Yu Cheung’s Bak Siu Lum, or some other style associated or nicknamed (or misnamed) Shaolin?

    Second on the CLF thing. I’m a Hung Sing CLF guy, from the Cheung Hung Sing line. Specifically from the school of Grandmaster Chan Kwok Way. Our branch has only 11 forms, plus some weapons that are specific to the style, one two man form (and I’m not sure if we have a dummy form). The classical weapon forms are from Bak Siu Lum. So this is a good example of amalgamation I’d say. GM Chan teaches also lots of other styles but first and foremost BSL and CLF.

    As for some of the styles predicted to go out. I don’t know how popular Baji is right now, I know it’s related or regularly mixed with Pigua and maybe Tongbei, so maybe those three will merge. As for Bak Mei, again no real clue as to its popularity, but, correct me if I’m wrong, there’re a lot of similar styles in southern China. I mean, Dragon, Chow Gar, White Crane, aren’t those all quite similar? I guess some streamlined version or mix of those might survive them all.

    Again, great topic for discussion!

  13. ben says:

    Personally the trend that I see is less forms and simpler systems surviving. For example taichi bagua wing chun have very few forms.

  14. Alex Lamas says:

    As a Tiger Claw practitioner I hope you’re right. Mi Zong has already been absorbed in to our Fu Jow Pai. However, Fu Jow Pai from Wai Hong’s lineage is so small the future is uncertain. I know a few of us endeavor to keep it going and keep it traditional.

  15. Jeff says:

    Perhaps this withdrawing is merely the preparation for a coming explosion in the martial arts.

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