Traditions that Could Go Away

The preservation of martial arts traditions is of keen interest to me. Yet if I were captured and tortured by Ninjas I would have to admit that I harbor doubts about certain things, and sometimes think that perhaps it would be just as good if they faded out gracefully, like old soldiers.

Consider the act of donning the traditional uniform. This requires a special set of skills unknown to the lucky multitudes. But let me say this: if more people had to go through the rigmarole of putting on a Kung Fu uniform, the world would be a slower place.

Kung Fu wrapping pantsIt starts with the pants. The only type of lower covering we can compare to traditional Kung Fu pants is described by the title “harem pantaloons.” These martial pants are hugely out of proportion. If you have a forty inch waist then these babies have to be at least 80 inches in girth. You slip your legs through like a pair of matchsticks dropped into a well, then fold one half of the excess midriff over your stomach. Press that down tight with one hand, then fold over the other half. You next attempt to secure your sash around the folded pants (remember these are satin and want to slip out of your grasp at any instant.) Next, you roll the extra waist material over the sash from the top in the manner of wrapping a subway sandwich. When you’ve done this, you bring that sash around a second time to cover all this folded material. You tighten the sash and then knot it. Finally you take that folded extra material and tuck it under and up behind the sash so it no longer hangs down like a crumpled bed sheet.

A Kung Fu belt(If you think this part of the dressing is already a chore, you are right. Everyone hates it so much that they get help from classmates. It is not uncommon for one guy to hold your sash while you spin your body into the sash to make sure it’s snug, like wrapping your knee with a bandage. Once you are cinched up, you return the favor.)

Now that the pants are on, you tie the ankle ends down with short cotton cords, making sure they anchor to your ankles but not so tight they disallow free movement.

Kung Fu "fighting boots"The “fighting boots” come next. The kind most people wore can only be gotten now from one Hong Kong family of boot makers. They had a soft velour top with a wide, stiff high rim, and a single metal snap tab at the back. The soles of these boots came from old tires sliced flat with the “GOODYEAR” logo in arched letters. These tire bottoms—and they all had them—were a modernized version of earlier classic boots. The original cotton soles would by replaced by wives or daughters many times before they wore out. When we practiced kicking and slapped our feet—POAP!—they raised such a satisfying sound.

Now came the Kung Fu jacket. You were lucky if these great looking silk tops fastened with only five or six frogs (fabric clasps) running down the front. The classic older design had a twin row of at least twenty small fabric loops. You proceeded in an alternating manner, interlacing each with the next one down. It could easily take five or KFUniform013more minutes to entwine them and—if you got all the way down there and realized that you had “dropped a loop”—you had to start over again. So it goes, top knot at the base of your throat, then back-and-forth lacing until the bottom knot. The old saying was that, though they Threading a Kung Fu jackettook a lot of time to lace up they could—in the advent of a challenge—be ripped open in a moment. I never had to enact that particular scene for a death match, but I can attest that they, indeed, instantly split right open when, as in my case, I had botched another attempted threading.

There you have it; the traditional donning of the silks. There were many variations, of course, such as threaded belts, wrist bracelets with metal studs, headbands. Each group had a distinguishing variation on the uniform, whether cloud-patterned pants, or pull-back sleeves. But the complexity of the suiting up process was an unchallenged ache. Perhaps it aided practice, something like saluting at the doorway. For me it was like having to make an origami flower out of my napkin before I could eat.

Can I point out the irony that contemporary Wushu players—which in some cases retain only a speck of formal structure and internal alignments from traditional Kung Fu—commonly wear these uniforms for exhibitions. But such is the fashion with fashion. At least I will never again have to drop into a last minute horse stance, then check to make sure that my belly wraps are properly folded, before walking onto the practice floor.

4 Responses to “Traditions that Could Go Away”

  1. Patrick says:

    Thank goodness for Velcro! =)

  2. Just my opinion here, but if these uniform traditions were to go, I doubt that would takeaway from the original kungfu foundations! But I do understand this to be part of learning patience as well as it probably being more secure to the body for support in the movements.

  3. Brian Quakenbush says:

    Where can I get boots like these?

  4. Plum Staff says:

    Hi Brian,
    You might try this place for both the shoes and the pants! They are a great source for traditional costume.

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