Kung Fu

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功 夫

Traditional Kung Fu training reverse-engineers mastery. To that end, the very first training and first skill taught, is how to enter the appropriate state of mind for Kung Fu and Chi Kung practice. Chi Kung, is what makes Kung Fu traditional if we use ‘traditional’ to distinguish between genuine Kung Fu and outward Kung Fu-looking form with no internal aspect (which really isn’t Kung Fu at all). Helpful in the endeavour of advancing some way towards mastery and/ or just getting the most from our practice, is a very clear understanding of what traditional Kung Fu is and our own personal goals associated with it. Apart from mindset and even just on the physical level, if you were to reverse-engineer martial stances and postures from the standpoint of the Kung Fu maxim of, “Safety First, Victory Second” (a mindset which is ideally ingrained in traditional Kung Fu practitioners) you would arrive at something almost identical to the forms and stances of Kung Fu which are as functional in this regard as they are beautiful to look at.

Some practitioners do not distinguish between Martial Arts and Combat Sports – even in the Academic Study of Martial Arts literature the two are often conflated and treated as one under the acronym MACS (Martial Arts & Combat Sports). Many practitioners have never thought there could be a difference and others believe there is no difference. From a traditional Kung Fu perspective, we believe that there is a fundamental difference between a Martial Art and a Combat Sport and that this affects how you approach training, how you approach learning and how you approach choosing which art to learn.

There are many reasons why people begin learning a martial art or a combat sport. As a general rule of thumb, martial arts training and combat sports training differ in that they are aimed at different goals. Combat sport training is aimed at just that; competition (where there are rules depending on whether it is Taekwondo, Muay Thai or what have you; in Taekwondo you may not trap the opponent’s leg, in Muay Thai you may trap the opponent’s leg – these rules have some impact on the way the outward aesthetic form of both sports are expressed), while martial arts training is aimed at self-defense (to which end anything goes i.e no rules)(please note that it does not follow from this statement that Kung Fu practitioners automatically attempt to rip each other’s throats or poke each other’s eyes out in training; in fact, because of the conceptual difference, traditional Kung Fu training is vastly safer than combat sports training and is designed to protect the practitioner – one only spars in traditional Kung Fu practice after one has comfortably learnt everything necessary in order to do so. This is in contradistinction to the teaching methodology adopted in some combat sports where fighting is learned by sparring). That is not to say that combat sports people are not combat efficient and it is not to claim that all martial artists are invincible or implement an “anything goes” mindset in their training methodology but to say that in general terms, the mindset one approaches the training with is simply different. Martial Arts practice of course may be a gateway into Combat Sport and Combat Sport practice in many cases evolves into Martial Arts practice such as in the case of sport Muay Thai practitioners shifting into Muay Boran, Muay Chaiya and Krabi Krabong practice when they end their ring-fighting careers. The reasons for undertaking either may be cultural (in terms of either tradition or conforming to conventional opinion) or they may transcend culture and strike at the heart of personhood and what it means to be in the world.

The reasons for engaging in martial arts or combat sport study may range from; simply being able to defend oneself to enjoying the martial mode of expressing the human body, to become strong against oneself and – at the gateway to extreme ownership – to gain moral force. On all of those levels, some character-building will occur to a greater or lesser degree though it largely depends on the person and may not exceed the character-building to be gained from practicing any other sport that requires perseverance, grit and the cultivation of resolve like rugby or ice hockey. Very few people engage in martial arts practice for the above reasons as well as self-healing and spiritual cultivation. Fewer still are lucky enough to encounter a martial art that offers those latter two things even if they wanted to find it.

 

Traditional Chinese Kung Fu is that art. It is a holistic and complete art form for the triple-cultivation of form (the physical body), energy and spirit. While modern Chinese Wushu can be classified as a combat-sport with an emphasis on solo competition performance – and achieves that goal well – traditional Chinese Kung Fu is an artistic system of approaches to combat with an emphasis first on self-defense, good health and later spiritual cultivation if the practitioner is ready /or/ inclined (s/he may not be interested in spirituality and does not need to be in order to derive the tremendous benefits offered by this practice). Here, “good health” means not only physical well-being, but mental and emotional health also.

Chinese is a poetic language and is often hard to translate. Distinct from the Chinese term for ‘martial art,’ the term  ‘Kung Fu’ means ‘Skill Acquired Over Time.’ The colloquial usage is something more like ‘skill.’ The compliment, “She’s got good Kung Fu,” means she’s got good skill (with the implicit understanding and respect for the time and dedicated practice taken to acquire such skill). Technique also takes time to refine but techniques and skills are different; someone may have beautiful technique but lack the skill to apply it such as for example, being able to somersault in the air and execute the technique of breaking a board with a kick but being without the skill to apply the exact same technique on a moving human subject/ target when one is in the adrenaline dump (boards after all, don’t fight back).

This difference between skills and techniques becomes most apparent in Kung Fu since to have good Kung Fu means to have good skill. This is another area which distinguishes Kung Fu from combat sports and other martial arts as well as differentiating it from Wushu. Someone may perform the hand-posture of a Tiger Claw but may not have gone through the necessary stages – often over years – to acquire force in their hands. Lacking that force and skill, the exponent’s Tiger Claw is simply posing as they do not have the skill and force to apply it. If they are a Wushu competitor in solo-competition, they may not need to apply it; they can just make the hand-form and will win their competition based on form rather than function. Please note that I do not suggest that all Wushu practitioners have lousy Tiger-Claws but simply that it is conceivably possible – in theory – to win a solo Wushu competition just making a Tiger-Claw hand-form without having real Tiger-Claw skill; that is the difference. The same goes for competition kata in Karate though original Okinawan and indeed later Japanese Karate practiced as a martial art and not a sport, places huge emphasis on conditioning the hands.

 

The twin pillars of genuine Kung Fu training are Combat Efficiency and Internal Force. Luckily, Shaolin Wahnam members have access to force training methods which while traditional, have become so refined and efficient that some of the more grueling aspects of Kung Fu training further back in the lineage can be detoured; not because they are “outdated” necessarily or ineffective (in conventional terms compared to other arts, such older methods from further back are extremely effective) but because traditions are alive, not dead, and genuine Kung Fu is very much alive. That means our traditional Kung Fu training methodology has become cost effective to an unprecedented degree.

One of the amazing things about training traditional Kung Fu is that, the health benefits to be derived from the internal force and harmonious energy flow which allows us to acquire wondrous skills and arts like Tiger Claw, Cotton Palm, Cosmos Palm, Art of Flexibility, Iron Shirt, Golden Bell and many more (all available in this school), actually help us to lead happier more enriched and meaningful lives.

Traditional Kung Fu is an introspective art of such profundity in simplicity, such class and sophistication that it is in my opinion, a jewel in the crown of human achievement, crystalized as it has been through the understanding of generations of innovative, pioneering and highly-skilled past masters both male and female over upwards of 2000 years if not longer (one of the most famous and most combat efficient Kung Fu styles in the world today was named after it’s most famous female exponent, Yim Wing Choon who herself was taught by the towering figure of Ng Mui, the renowned martial nun). That length of time is just the length of time that traditional Kung Fu training methodology was institutionalized in martial temples in China, not to mention the pre-existing martial systems that those institutions built upon. Traditional Kung Fu practice has been in existence far longer in its institutionalized form than any other martial art style and during that time, it evolved to help the monks of the Shaolin Temple and the priests of Wudang Mountain – amongst others of China’s sacred mountains – not only be highly combat efficient but also to use the very same physical combative forms and patterns to cultivate a state of vibrant health, real peace and spiritual joy when they didn’t have to use their art for self-defense (the only reason that they would resort to applying the combative functions of their arts). That is an art form without comparison on planet earth and certainly worthy of a lifetime of diligent practice. I have often heard my own Teacher, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit say that being accomplished in the genuine Shaolin arts (from where Wudang-Shaolin Kungfu and later Wudang Kung Fu developed) is better than turning stones to gold by touch.

 

The purpose of training in traditional Kung Fu – like any martial art – is to be able to defend oneself. We might go further and say that its purpose is to not get hit at all. We might go further still and say that the purpose of traditional Kung Fu is to reduce vulnerability to attack on every level, not just in our physical proximity and to be able to pre-empt any attack and even (we hope) reach the level where we see an attack coming before it happens. As I mentioned above, real Kung Fu training, certainly the way that traditional Kung Fu is taught in the Shaolin Wahnam Institute, reverse engineers mastery. In that sense, it works on not only a mindset necessary for protecting physical boundaries but, with the aid of Chi Kung to clear emotional blockages intrinsically improves our emotional/ psychological boundary setting also. To do this, the mind aspect (part of our triple-cultivation) is as important as the physical form and the internal-energy aspect. Related to this mindset aspect, a noble moral code is of great benefit to the aspiring practitioner.

For more on Kung Fu practice, goals and methods, I wholeheartedly recommend the book The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu: Secrets of Kung Fu for Self-Defense, Health and Enlightenment by my Teacher, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit; it is a book that has changed the course of my life immeasurably since I found it in a bookshop in Cork city in 2003 and brought it with me in my backpack to Asia the following year. If you wish to inquire about upcoming courses, send an email to the address listed on the Teachers page on the menu above.

Sifu John Ó Laoidh, Aibreán 2022.