Kung Fu’s Back and Forth Problem

There are two kinds of people, as Robert Benchley wrote, “Those who divide everyone into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” When we are talking about Kung Fu styles—good ones only, please—we often encounter another two-way path. Before I even go into this, let me tell you that this causes a lot of confusion with students of CMA.

Both of these types of styles are good, but good is a matter of degree here. In other words, both are good but there are degrees of good.

emei1The first type of style has a standardized format. It represents a lot of forms, often by assimilating other smaller and older styles. A good and obvious example of this would be Shaolin. Not only has it gathered into its embrace many, many forms and styles brought to it by people who came to live at the temple, but it is also the origin of some styles, or at least versions of some styles. Therefore, we have Shaolin Praying Mantis, Shaolin Tong Bei, Shaolin Baji, Shaolin Lost Track, Shaolin Tiger and more. Styles like this are lifetime involvements. They have, among their other features, a really stable structure that makes them easy to learn at any age, with just about no experience.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean the moves are easy to learn in that they do not require any skill or hard work. I mean that the basic postures, actions and principles are virtually unchanged at the high level of performance from the basics of training. Thus, a beginner might practice a highly extended toe kick. Later he may very well execute that toe kick while jumping in the air, spinning and simultaneously delivering four slaps against different parts of his body. This is a difficult movement requiring tremendous coordination but the actual posture and mechanics will be almost exactly the same as that learned in the first stages of training. The body will be held a certain way, the punches still straight and clean, the kicks loose and large.

duck2The less common styles do not assume the “general principles” of Kung Fu. Their movements are much less “universal.” Like Duck Style, or Dragon Boxing, they may take a shape completely different from what is normally thought of as Kung Fu. This or that hand position may not look beautiful, it may not be held in the “correct” fingers-together position. Postures may be less rigid, balancing to the front or side. Though beautiful, the movements will not appear polished and prim, clean and cornered. These styles did not mean to be part of the “bigger picture” of Chinese martial arts. Their masters never expected to allow strangers and tourists watch their styles performed. Why, they never even expected their opponents to get a decent look before succumbing to their skills.

One teacher of mine insisted that Kung Fu was not like basketball, that the rules were not consistent from grade school up to the NBA. He spoke of  studying a style for a while then choosing another and having to go back and learn all the basics again from the second style’s perspective.

Is one of these better than the other? Not really, and each of them necessarily has its own traps and tangles. If you are beginning, the “general” styles are easier to understand, not only for you but for your friends and parents who already think they know what martial arts—if not Kung Fu—looks like. The other styles may well prove more distinctly flavorful, but you should have been around long enough to know which one you want and why. Is Baji for you, or is it Wen Sheng? Starting by learning the  “big styles” will give you the time to decide this if it is the way to go.

duck1Of course none of this considers certain styles, like Hop Gar, which have one style wrapped in another. The inner type of style is rarely shown until the student has mastered the more universal and basic style. In other words, expect the road to great Kung Fu to have a few turns. In my experience it is better when the student participates rather than simply follows the agenda. In this way, though there may be turns and twists, there is no lost track.

One Response to “Kung Fu’s Back and Forth Problem”

  1. Patrick Hodges says:

    Well said. Two thumbs up.

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