Classical Kung Fu
Learn about Master Mark's Praying Mantis Kung Fu, Qigong and Tai Chi

February 2020
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Interview with Master Mark - Classical versus Modern Kung Fu
Filed under: General
Posted by: @ 2:43 pm

ME: What was Kung Fu training like in the monasteries?

GFM: You had to have patience. In the beginning martial arts were never mentioned. First we trained all the senses. Long periods of meditation preceded and followed each training session. We were blindfolded for all the sensory exercises. We had to distinguish herbs, incense, animals and other material by smell.

ME: I suppose the martial art application was to detect an enemy by smell. Were there any other applications?

GFM: Monks could tell some of the ingredients in a herbal mixture by smelling it. There were no devices for telling time in many chambers in the temple. Different smelling incense sticks were lit each hour to tell the time.

ME: What were some of the hearing exercises?

GFM: We were blindfolded and sat in the center of a circle of monks. When a monk made a noise, we had to tell which direction it came from. A similar exercise was to tell the direction of an object from the noise it made when it dropped. We had to try and hear a grain of rice thrown in the air. A stick or sword was struck and we had to tell whether it was hit at the top, middle or bottom.

ME: The obvious martial art application of these last exercises is to detect a surprise or rear attack by hearing. Could you mention some other applications?

GFM: You can tell which part of the foe’s sword you contact by the sound. The hearing exercises were helpful for avoiding bullets and shells while fighting in the Sino-Japanese War. Enemies could be detected in the dark.

ME: Although smelling and hearing training are useful, I don’t think they account for your outstanding hand techniques. Did you practice any sort of yielding or sensitivity exercises?

GFM: Yes. We began by sitting in a chair opposite our partner. We were blindfolded. A simple beginning exercise was to hold your hand, palm up, in front of your body. Your partner would gently push down on your palm. You would try to move your hand in the direction of the force and turn it over, so that your palm was face down. You would try to remain in contact with your opponent’s hand, as if they were glued together. Your opponent would now push up and you would try to move your hand upward and rotate it so that your palm faced up.

ME: I suppose that this exercise was designed to teach you to relax, offer no resistance and move in the direction of the opponent’s as if your hands were pasted together?

GFM: Correct. After becoming proficient in the one-hand exercise both hands were used. Your partner could push either hand or both simultaneously. When both hands were pushed, each hand could be pushed in a different direction. After a while the hands could be pushed in any direction, not just vertically. Similar exercises were done for the legs. Later, other parts of the body were pushed.

ME: Were these exercises only practiced sitting down?

GFM: No. They were practiced sitting down initially so that you could relax more and not become tense because of a poor stance. After you became proficient in the sitting exercises they were practiced standing still. Later, they were practiced moving and other exercises were added. For example, we would bump into each other and practice neutralizing and using the oponent’s force against him. Our feet were tied together and we had to move in unison in various ways using only feeling, since we were still blindfolded.

ME: Were practical applications of these sensitivity exercises discussed in this stage of your training?

GFM: Applications were not discussed until you became proficient in the sensory exercises. In general nothing was explained. Explanations are the American way or modern way in China. You were shown an exercise and told to practice it thousands of times. You would not be shown another technique until you mastered the previous one. You might finally understand a technique through your practice. Verbal explanations were not given.

ME: Did you practice self-defense after mastering the sensory exercises?

GFM: Even after passing through the sensitivity part of your training , you didn’t learn to punch, kick or block. You had to practice exercises designed to loosen and relax every part of your body. You had to practice footwork and stances for a long time. Many hours were devoted to qigong and meditation exercises. You had to develop a great deal of power in single techniques before you were allowed to practice combination techniques.

ME: Did you study weapons?

GFM: Yes, we studied all the classical weapons, but only after mastering all the unarmed techniques. Nowadays, students learn weapons right away. How can someone with no power, a poor stance and footwork, use a weapon? Even many instructors look like they’re performing a juggling act during a weapon’s demonstration. They swing their weapons in large arcs; they don’t have short power.

ME: Your system of Praying Mantis is famous for short power. How did you develop short power with weapons?

GFM: The only secret is patience and constant practice. I had to be very skilled and strong in unarmed techniques before I was allowed to practice weapons. My instructors made me practice single techniques, as cutting potatoes, melons, etc., for six years before learning any forms.

ME: I can see why your techniques are so powerful. Nowadays many students come to train once a week. In six years or in many situations much sooners, they think they are Masters and open their own clubs. People don’t seem to use common sense when thinking about martial arts. No one would think that a PH.D in Physics, for example, could be obtained by attending a university once a week of an hour or two for six years.

GFM: I think that most of the old Masters were more skillful than most modern Masters. It is not because secret techniques were lost. Modern times are not conducive to learning Kung Fu. Many people have a lot of responsibilities such as their jobs, families etc., and there are many different forms of amusement to distract people. When I was a boy, there were no radios, televisions, movies or books in our village. People did not have a lot of responsibilities or a demanding job. Consequently, I could practice nearly the whole day. Besides, training was one of the few forms of amusement.

ME: Did you only study self-defense in the monasteries?

GFM: No. The monks realized that it could be dangerous to only practice the yang part of Kung Fu (self-defense), without practicing the remaining yin part (meditation, Chinese medicine, art, etc.). They wanted to produce a well-rounded human being, not a killing machine. Since the monasteries were isolated, it was important to know medicine to treat sick people as well injuries occurring during Kung Fu practice.

ME: I can attest to the fact that constant yang type training often leads to a hard mind.

GFM: The students in monasteries were better than most students in modern, commercial Kung Fu schools. Monastic students had to have good character and aptitude to be admitted to the monastery. They couldn’t pay to learn techniques and only learned new techniques when they had mastered the previous techniques to the satisfaction of the Master. They had to have a lot of patience and perserverance and were forced to train hard. Students were instilled with the love of learning. They realized that Kung Fu was a lifetime pursuit, since they saw that the Masters were still studying. They were not given a false sense of pride in their accomplishments, since there were no rankings, in the modern sense.

ME: You mean that there were no colored belts or sashes. Was there one Master for a system?

GFM: The students were classified as Student or Disciple. You didn’t need a belt to know if you could do a technique. Wrestlers don’t get belts. There was only one known Master. The other people trained because they liked it. When the Master retired he appointed a succesor. The existence of another Master was kept secret. No one ever saw him train. He never taught any students. The reason for this secrecy was that if the known Master was killed, then the system would not perish, since the other Master could take over.

ME: Did you study more than one style in the monastery?

GFM: No. In fact the style of Kung Fu was never mentioned. Learning one style takes a lifetime. Nowadays you often see commercial schools run by a teacher in his twenties purporting to teach a half a dozen styles. Many modern students want to learn a lot of styles. They remind me of the boy who wanted to fatten his cow. He took the cow up one mountain which had green pastures. No sooner had he got there, he noticed what seemed to be a greener pasture on another mountain. So he dragged the cow up the other mountain. After remaining there for a short time, he spotted what looked like a more lush pasture on another mountain. He dragged the cow to this new pasture. After repeating this process for awhile, he noticed that his cow had become skinnier.

ME: Do you think some styles might have some techniques not contained in other styles and so it might be advantageous to study them?

GFM: In the old days most styles were oriented to self-defense. The end result of their training was the same. The good fighters looked very similar when they fought. If modern students who are interested in self-defense could have seen these old Masters, they might change their mind about learning different styles.

ME: How did the old Masters train their students to fight?

GFM: Real fighting is continuous. You attack, your opponent counters, you counter his counter and so on. The advanced students were taught realistic, two-men fighting formulas emphasizing the continuity of real fighting. Thus, students could practice and learn timing, distancing, feeling, using the opponent’s strength against him, etc. These types of training exercises can no longer be found in most modern versions of these old systems. I have devised such two-person formulas for each one-person formula in my system.

ME: Where did you study the sensitivity exercises you describe.

GFM: In the Hoi Jung Temple in Macao.

ME: Did you study Praying mantis there?

GFM: No, I studied a version of Tiger Claw. It doesn’t resemble most modern versions of Tiger Claw that I have seen. I applied these ideas to Praying Mantis. That is why my hand movements are softer than my instructors.

ME: Why doesn’t modern Tiger Claw resemble the system you were taught?

GFM: Perhaps this system was lost. Modern masters are not soley motivated by practicality in fighting. They like to pose and flex their muscles. Many of them have really not studied the animals they are trying to imitate. The monks kept many animals in the monastery.

ME: Did they keep the animals to learn to imitate their actions?

GFM: There were other reasons. Some were kept as pets. Others were trained to do useful tasks. Bears were trained to fetch water. We also fought the bears. This was good practice. The students became stronger from this training, but even the strongest student was not stronger than the bear. Thus, you had to learn proper timing and the correct angle of deflection to deflect the bear’s cuff.

ME: What led to the decline of Kung Fu in China?

GFM: When the Communists came into power they tried to suppress Kung Fu, since it could be used against them. They persecuted Masters, especially those that were good fighters. For example, my uncle was a famous Kung Fu expert. When the Red soldiers came to his village, they tried to force my uncle to kneel. This was humiliating and insulting, since only criminals knelt in China. The villagers begged him to kneel. However, he refused saying that every one must die sometimes. My uncle had great inner power. The soldiers shot him more than twenty times before he died. The Masters who were not killed or imprisoned fled to Taiwan or went into hiding. The Communists thought that any form of religion was superstitious. Monks were also persecuted and monasteries were closed.

ME: In recent years the Chinese government has been encouraging the development of Wu-shu. Do you think that this will revitalize Kung Fu in China?

GFM: Wu-shu is designed to please spectators and judges. It consists of many large, exaggerated and acrobatic movements. The formulas are supposed to be based on classical formulas. However, the competitors are marked on originality and choreography. Thus, the old formulas are not preserved. Besides, I have never met any old Masters of any classical system who knew the whole system on my trips to China. Therefore, instead of preserving Kung Fu, encouranging the development of Wu-shu will further weaken classical Kung Fu.

ME: Have you me a lot of people who were good fighters on your trips?

GFM: Some of the wu-shu people, especially the younger, athletic ones, thought they could fight. However, they were mediocre in comparison to the old, classically trained fighters. The practical application of Kung Fu is still discouraged in China.

ME: Did you see any monasteries that were functioning as in olden times?

GFM: No. The government has reopened some monasteries as tourist attractions. They are filled with actors, not priests.

ME: Do you think that there are any Masters, in the classical sense, left anywhere in the world? By this I mean a person who knows his complete system and was appointed the sole successor of the system by the previous Master.

GFM: Very few. Even when I was a boy many of the older systems were incomplete. The Masters had died before passing on the whole system. Although some had retained the forms, the practical applications were often lost. Fortunately, there have only been four previous Masters in our system and none had died before passing on the complete system.

ME: Do you think it possible to bring Kung Fu to the level it was at when you were a small boy in China?

GFM: It would be very difficult. There are very few Masters alive today that know a complete system of Kung Fu. Students are not discriminating and don’t seek out these people.

ME: Yes, it is very strange but parents don’t investigate martial arts schools. However, if they were going to attend a university they would investigate the schools thoroughly.

GFM: Times and attitudes ase also different. As I mentioned previously, people don’t have as much time for practicing. In the old days more people understood the virtues of hard work, respect of the ancient Masters, humility, loyality and respect of the teacher and his guidance.

ME: Similar difficulties are encountered in the educational system in the United States. Many students don’t respect their teachers, want instant enlightenment and rarely do their homework. What do you think about tournaments?

GFM: Generally, they are detrimental to Kung Fu. Many judges are not expert in the style they are judging. Competitors don’t do a classical form but a choreographed, shortened version. They are frequently judged on how flashy their form looks and how well they can act and not how closely their form resembles the original or on practicality or power.

ME: What about other aspects of Kung Fu which were taught in the monasteries?

GFM: There are very few teachers who have studied the treatment of injuries or Qigong for health. In the old days, the monasteries were isolated and medical help was not readily available. Thus, it was necessary to keep yourself healthy and be able to treat illnesses.

ME: Today many students think that western medicine is sufficient. They regard Chinese medicine and Qigong as unscientific and so they don’t want to devote time to study these arts. There is a lot of empirical evidence that these methods work and there are already many scientific investigations explaining some aspects of Chinese medicine.

GFM: Some of the ancient Masters could perform amazing feats when they were aged. My Six Healing Sounds teacher was known as “Old Man” in China. At age ninety-eight, he looked half his age. Until his death, at about one hundred and five, he was very active and in excellent physical condition. He continued working for the government and travelled from province to province teaching Qigong. Lee Siem, the second Master of our system, was practicing Kung Fu and running around China building temples when he was over one hundred years old.

ME: Today most commercial don’t teach Chinese painting or Lion dancing.

GFM: In spite of the limited time of many students, I still try to teach these subjects and other arts taught in the monasteries.

ME: We are fortunate to have a complete, classical system today. All that is necessary to preserve it are dedicated students who are willing to spend a lifetime studying and improving the system.

GFM: Yes. However, one can learn to improve and preserve one’s health in about six months by studying the Six Healing Sounds. Learning how to defend yourself adequately might take a few years. The time required would be shorter than in most systems because the techniques are used exactly the way they are practiced in this system.

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