Lost in Translation: The Hidden Gems of Kung-Fu

 benefits of kung fuIn speaking with another shifu a few weeks ago, he brought up something that I took notice of quite some time ago, something that has always stood out to me, something that I have always made it a point to rally against in my Kung-Fu training and teaching.

He spoke of today’s state of affairs with the Chinese martial arts community, and how the various styles and systems were being taught, but that none of these people could actually fight, or use it effectively, or in most cases, even use it at all. And we have all seen it… someone who has spent years in a given martial arts style, day in and day out, knows all of the sets, and can spout off tons of theory and martial sayings… only to get into a fight (not even an actual altercation, but a tournament situation), and everything they ever learned goes right out the window, and what remains is essentially a generic kickboxing style.

Now, if you train kickboxing, that is fine. But your Baguazhang, Choy-Li-Fut, or what have you IS NOT kickboxing.

After thinking on it for some time, plus experiencing it for myself, I came to understand two things were happening: Firstly, those that taught the style(s) did not actually know how to fight in the first place, and secondly, those people who were teaching were not taught how to use their art(s) by those who taught them. Of course, this could be by that shifu’s choice, or they themselves fall into the same vicious cycle of not knowing how to fight, or be shown how to. At least I had had some fighting experience and knowledge when I came across these people. And, I was able to extract the use/applications on my own (admittedly, some of it was fairly difficult to see, at times). And while fighting per se is not the primary intent of martial arts (depending on who you ask), it does exist as the single most visibly tangible expression of it. That said, it only makes sense that if you train it, you give it life in a time of need.

However, this is not the case, has not been the case, and the way it is looking, ever will be the case. It is no wonder that people believe that Kung-Fu is a waste of time, not worth learning, and serves no purpose in a real-life fighting situation. Part of the intrinsic worth of Kung-Fu is not being transmitted. Effectively, properly, in part, whole, or at all. Granted, no one should be out there trying to train Kung-Fu death squads, but at the same time, if, say a Phoenix Eye is supposed to be used as performed in a set, then by all means, those properties, qualities, and attributes of that Phoenix Eye should be explored, developed, and harnessed. It is in this that the intricacies of a style are not lost. Proper transmission of not only technique and theory must be done, but actualizing the technique and theory must take place, as well.

On that note, one may say that dropping into a bow stance, pressing down toward the ground to defend against an imaginary incoming knee or kick, while thrusting out and up with the opposite hand in a Phoenix Eye… all of that will get someone hurt in a real-life situation.

And you know what? Yes. Yes, it will. HOWEVER… should the teacher know how to deconstruct the sets, and decipher (uncover) the nuances of the moves, the student would then learn that, obviously, you would not assume such a contrived position and go through all those motions for an attack. BUT… instead, that their bow stance is to illustrate that their vertical base needs to be stable… not just for this attack, but ANY attack…, and therefore, not low as seen in the set, but stable (also, paying attention to the very structure of the stance), and that their Phoenix Eye should be aimed upward at the more vulnerable targets, since the Phoenix Eye, not being the strongest of fist formations, but presenting an advantage over the standard clenched fist, will allow for a much more damaging blow to soft tissue areas and the visual organs.

This much I will say: Not everyone is a fighter. Fighting looks cool, thanks to movies and video games. It stirs the interest, so we do have modern entertainment media to thank for that. Unfortunately, fighting is not what we see when we turn on ‘Kung-Fu Theater’, and watch ‘Five Deadly Venoms’ Not even close. And no one wants any part of that. ‘Enter the Dragon’ would be closer to the truth, but even that is very far off from the real thing. That said, not everyone is willing to mix it up, or wants to. But if the time comes, something has to happen, and it would be great if people were prepared for it, instead of giving them false hope for memorizing two handfuls of prearranged sequences, and knowing a slew of Mandarin or Cantonese words. This is something I never plan to do. I have a student who trains in Hung Gar Kung-Fu with me. All she wants to do is learn the sets, and enter tournaments in the Forms division, which, if that is her goal, then it is fine with me. She is not a fighter, at least not for physical confrontations. And although I do instruct her on how and what to use, learning Kung-Fu for the purpose of self-defense is not her interest. So, I do not press the matter. In a situation like this, something not fully being transmitted is understandable. But this happenstance is rare, and a good number of today’s Kung-Fu schools are doing their students a disservice by not stressing EVERYTHING that a given style has to offer, and it in turn gives Kung-Fu a bad name.

Learning—TRUE learning, in Kung-Fu—takes time. More time than most people are willing to spend to attain the full spirit of a thing. That is perhaps why arts like Muay Thai or Western Boxing are more appealing to people today (and truthfully, this very same topic can apply to them, also). They get to the action and flash faster. I could say that this is why today’s teachers do not fully transmit the style to their students, but I stand by my original thought. And it is in this that our arts are being lost. Kept alive by a faithful handful around the world that are true to their craft and preservation of ALL that their style entails, but I fear that even this number is slowly dwindling. And what will be left of this thing that we have all put so much of our time and passion into? The empty-hand sets, the weapons sets, the actual use of, and skill behind it all… where will it go?

Myself, I know I do not plan to let it fade away. But I am only one person. A figurative call-to-arms is in order. The fighting spirit and presence of Kung-Fu must be saved.

Brandon Best is a personal trainer, Western Boxing coach, and martial arts teacher (Northern Shaolin, Hung Gar, and Xingyiquan), residing in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. He and his wife, IFBB Pro Dawn Alison jointly own and operate Fit Body Training and Gear, and he is the head coach for the Fit Body Boxing Club.

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2 Responses to “Lost in Translation: The Hidden Gems of Kung-Fu”

  1. Joe B says:

    My take on it is that when Asian martial arts came to the US they used self defense as an answer to the question “why should we study that?” But in reality Kung Fu was never meant for street fighting or sport fighting. In my opinion, the empty hand forms are just preparation for learning weapons. Kung Fu was meant for defending your village from bandits or fighting foriegn invaders. You wouldn’t go out to meet the bandits with boxing gloves on, and you shouldn’t wrestle or box a mugger. Qi Jiguang said “Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”

  2. Pedro Valladares says:

    Excellent article. My master always told me that if you cannot use it, why train? If you want to do kickboxing, then go to kickboxing classes. I teach the way I was taught which includes teaching how to use every move. However, like the author, I have students who also are not interested in fighting. I still teach them the applications because knowing them I believe will make the quality of their moves better.
    Keep up the good work!

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