What is Classical Kung Fu?
This article is addressed to beginning students and to those interested in enlarging their knowledge of Kung Fu.
The series of questions hopefully will stimulate students to carefully investigate the schools they intend to join, define classical Kung Fu and help differentiate between external and internal systems. Some of the concepts are difficult to explain since they are physical as well mental and must be experienced.
What is Kung Fu?
The literal meaning of Kung Fu is “hard task”. In ancient times the monasteries in China were the repositories of knowledge. The hard task was to masterself-defense, Chinese medicine, philosophy, music, painting and calligraphy. Today most commercial clubs only emphasize self-defense or sporting competitions.
In this modern world of specialization it seems unbelievable that one person can master so many diverse disciplines. However, the ancient Chinese philosophers were generalists rather than specialists. They discovered that these apparently diverse disciplines have a common basis, Taoist philosophy. Nevertheless, Kung Fu was considered a lifetime study.
What is a Master?
A Master is a hereditary title designating a person who knows a whole system. Although a Master is a highly skilled martial artist, a highly skilled martial is not necessarily a Master. Each classical system has only one Master (sometimes called a Grandmaster). When he retires, he appoints a new Master.
There are very few Masters alive today. Some of the systems are very old and many of the techniques and forms have been lost because the Master died before passing them on.
Sometimes a Master died before designating a successor and many students claimed to be the Master and they alone knew the “true system”. Even if a Master was appointed, other students claimed to be the Master since their teacher was not alive to dispute their claims.
How can you tell who is the true Master?
This is difficult especially for a beginning student. These fakes are highly skilled con artists who prey on students’ ignorance and psychological weaknesses. Their tools are extreme friendliness, excessive praise and flattery, pretending to care for their students and feeling their pain. They use meaningless Chinese phrases to make weak, useless techniques seem powerful and exotic. The following criteria can help distinguish a Master from a phoney.
In classical Kung Fu the student must imitate the teacher and learn certain forms. Therefore, two “Masters” cannot have very few forms or techniques in common and move differently.
Sometimes they are movies or videos of the former Master. If a Master’s hands do not resemble the former Master hands, for example it looks like he is doing a hard style when the system is soft, then he must be a fake.
The Master appoints a successor who is a highly skilled martial artist. A student with knowledge of any martial art would be able to tell if the “Master” had a strong stance etc. A person who looks like a beginner cannot be a Master.
Another trick of “Masters” is to pull out photos of them with their teacher. These photos were obtained by paying hundreds of dollars to the teacher, pretending that they were a friend of a friend of the teacher or having a friend shoot a picture at a demonstration or seminar. Many of these photographs do not show the “Master” practicing with his teacher but friendly horseplay. Such photographs are then passed off as serious self defense moves.
Who can teach a particular system of Kung Fu?
Only a student who has the permission of the Master of that system. His school is usually a branch of Master’s school.
How many different styles of Kung Fu are there?
There are about 300 styles. The styles are based on mammals, birds, insects, mythical creatures, colors, spirits, philosophies, and combinations of these categories. There are also family Kung Fu systems which are passed on to the descendants.
Is there a grading system in classical Kung Fu?
Not usually; however, in some classical schools the students are divided into categories, such as student and disciple.
Many commercial schools make up their own ranking system and award different colored belts or sashes. There are some organizations in China who make up their own forms, based on classical forms, and have a belt-ranking system.
How can you tell if a Kung Fu system is legitimate?
The teacher should be able to trace the Masters back to the founder.
Contact the Master of the system to find out if the student has his permission to teach. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if the head of the organization, even if it is large, is a Master.
Some systems have their forms recorded in books or videos. For example, the Chen Tai Chi form has been recorded. If a teacher’s movements don’t resemble the recorded form, he is not a Master.
Learn the difference between an external and internal system so you can tell if the teacher is teaching according to the correct principles.
If a number of different styles are taught as a single system, be on your guard. This usually indicates that the teacher has never learned a single system thoroughly.
Any good system has techniques for dealing with all possible types of attack(short to long range; armed and unarmed). Many times the systems taught are incompatible (e.g. Shaolin and Tai Chi). They are based on opposing philosophies and muscle action.
Be suspicious if free (uncontrolled) fighting is introduced in a relatively short time. If you have not mastered any techniques of the system, what are you doing?
Promotions after a fixed time period are fraudulent. Each person’s ability is different.
Weapons should not be taught to beginners. Beginning students do not have a strong stance, cannot maintain the proper distance from an opponent and cannot transmit a great deal of power to their hands. All of these skills are required to use a weapon properly. The student is taught a new technique only when the Master thinks he is ready and may be required to practice the same technique for years.
Some non-classical systems have rejected classical forms and have combined techniques from several systems. The rationale is that free fighting is not patterned. By combining the best techniques from several systems it is thought that a superior system is obtained. However, a good classical system already has most of these techniques. If not, the Master can add these, but never eliminates previous forms and techniques which characterize the system.
What are the difference between a hard (external) and a soft (internal) system?
Some of the differences are summarized below. Some external styles may possess some of the characteristics of an internal system.
Relatively little time is devoted to developing a strong stance as compared to an internal style which emphasizes relaxation.
Straight line force is used in blocking. Sometimes large circular blocks which require a great deal of force are used.
Not much attention is paid to developing feeling for interpreting force. Attack and defense depend on fast reflexes, so practioners reach their peak when they are young.
Force is opposed by force.
Practice sparring, which is not free style, usually consists of a few moves.
Techniques rely mainly on external strength. However, inernal power may be emphasized later.
Muscles are used inefficiently. Many techniques only use the legs or arms. Frequently, extraneous muscles are used. A rigid type of force is produced.
Balance and a strong stance are developed through relaxation and proper body alignment.
Small, subtle, circular, efficient movements are used.
Sensitivity and relaxation are emphasized. Thus, one’s skill can be continually improved, even when one is older.
The opponent’s force is used against him.
Longer two-men sparring forms are practiced. The shorter forms are cyclic and illustrate that fighting is continuous consisting of countering an attack and countering the counter.
Development of internal power is the chief goal.
Only necessary muscles are tensed. Power from the body is transferred to the arms and legs in a synergistic manner. Relaxation is emphasized. A flowing, smooth force, like a whip, is produced.
Qigong is practiced not only for martial applications, but also for health.
The above description is an attempt to help beginners distinguish between internal and external systems. Internal systems are not just Bagua, Hsingyi and Tai Chi.
In fact, some of the so-called practioners of internal systems violate the stated principles and are harder than many hard-stylists. Internal systems are not just characterized by claims of chi development, since this is also a part of some external systems.
Which is easier to master: an external system or an internal system?
Both are difficult to master. It requires more patience to become proficient in an internal system.
One must “invest in loss” - that is, be willing to lose contests rather than violate the principles of the internal system.
The cardinal principle is relaxation. It requires years of practice, frequently in slow motion, to become soft (Yin). The body must be changed from concrete to rubber. Often, the student begins to move too rapidly too soon in applications in order to generate force (Yang) and make a poorly executed technique work. The result is that the forms and techniques are performed in a hard-style manner.
The constant training training necessaryto master an internal system is illustrated in the following story. A Tai Chi student was determined to defeat his Master at push hands. He practised six hours a day for a long time. He met his teacher and engaged in a push hands’ contest.
The student was easily defeated and complained, “I practised six hours a day!” His Master responded, “I practice 24 hours a day.”
The Master’s cryptic comment means that he used the principle of his art in performing his daily tasks. He tried to interact with people in a way which produced as little tension as possible.
The body and mind are intertwined. Any stress in the mind is reflected in muscular tension and vice versa. This muscular hardness not only leads to defeat, but is also detrimental to your health.
Can one master an internal and external system simultaneously?
Not generally, since the muscles are used differently in each system. It isnot the sequences of movements alone that characterize asytem, but also the way in which they are done. The result of studying both tyoes of systems is usually that neither is performed correctly.
In order to punch or kick powerfully must one study soft-style if one is a hard-stylist and conversely?
Tremendous power can be generated through proper training in either style.
Do soft-stylists always block softly?
Some soft-stylists generally block softly using redirection; others use both hard and soft blocks. However, the power for a hard block is not generated in a hard style manner.
Which style is more suitable for older people?
The soft style is more suitable for older people. Some soft-stylists reach their peak when they are well over 60. Theoretically, one could improve forever.
A soft-stylist mainly depends on relaxation, sensitivity and the ability to turn his opponent’s strength against him and not on muscular strength or fast reflexes.
The hard style is hard on the body. Hard-stylists usually retire young, like gymnasts, or modify their techniques to resemble a soft style.