IS THERE A FUTURE FOR CLASSICAL KUNG FU? PART II

Part II

eric n mike

In Part I of this series we suggested a number of foundational reasons for the apparent decline of interest in classical kung fu over the past 30+ years — specifically, five major categories with any number of related subdivisions. Your author readily acknowledges the extensive damage these five have done, but also alluded to a sixth factor which from its incipience portended more negative implications than all the other five factors combined!

Historically, Green Dragon was ideally positioned to closely track this disabling factor from its inception. When we began our mail-order instructional videotape division in 1986, there was only one prominent source already marketing instructional videos solely devoted to authentic classical kung fu.  Disregarding settings, filming techniques, methods of presentation, etc., their material was genuine, albeit not highly advanced, and primarily restricted to one system.  It was immediately apparent to the staff that, considering Green Dragon’s extraordinary background of fighting forms from over 30 different Chinese systems and styles, an exclusive inventory of high level advanced sets (including very rare ‘closed door’ and 3rd level forms), the capability of teaching all 72 of the main weapons in the Chinese arsenal, a host of two-man forms, and material from obscure systems like 8 Drunken Immortals, Northern Monkey, and White Lotus [post consolidation] uniquely positioned Green Dragon to offer a wide variety of training modalities that no competitor could possibly duplicate!  These advantages were confirmed as Green Dragon proceeded over the next 18 months to produce over 100 instructional videotapes on a wide cross-section of classical kung fu programs which were marketed to great acclaim in over 75 countries around the world.

Then all hell began to break loose — literally! — and we come to that sixth factor in our equation representing the diminution of classical kung fu and the one I would emphasize as fueling a massive shift toward totally misrepresenting the nature and content of the martial arts in general — classical kung fu in particular:

6.   THE VIDEO CAMERA AND ASSOCIATED FILMING TECHNOLOGY!

For the past 40+ years, classical kung fu has only been available from a few legitimate sources — very few! — and many of these originally asserted themselves only in light of the Bruce Lee controversy in order to give truly authentic kung fu some representation (however limited in scope that was).  Any genuine kung fu that began to appear had to survive being inundated and choked out by a post WWII environment consisting of an incredible (and extremely boring!) glut of ad hoc systems, styles, and programs all pretending to be anything but what they actually are.  And what are they?  In a phrase, they are superficial, watered down, severely limited shadows of kung fu at best, and at worst, outright counterfeits, fabrications, and thoroughly fraudulent aggregations of hastily contrived movements and techniques doing an abysmal job of attempting to imitate bona fide Chinese material!

Though this unstable arrangement had existed from the late 1940s, the rate of decline into the current morass of sham and bogus ‘systems’ accelerated at an exponential pace with the ubiquity of the easily acquired video camera.  The process was simple, prevalent and quick!  Now virtually any nutcase with grandiose notions of his own knowledge base, however divorced from reality, let alone those with spurious schemes for making money by the cheap ruse of slick advertising concealing worthless products, found market conditions irresistible and, seemingly overnight, the greatest proportion of self-defense material offered through the medium of instructional video/DVD was nothing more than adulterated junk!!

Regrettably, this is probably an underestimation of the doleful and frustrating state in which this noble and worthwhile material pursuit of inestimable value should find itself.  What has been perpetrated on a naive and unsuspecting public is not merely disingenuousness or simply disgraceful, it’s gross malfeasance of the most despicable sort — leading people looking for high level self-defense capability to believe they can successfully defend themselves in life threatening situations when nothing of the kind is true!

It rapidly became impossible for a novice seeking authentic kung fu instruction via tape to select legitimate kung fu from the deplorable surfeit caused by hundreds of ‘choices’ almost all of which were devoid of any substantial teaching value whatsoever — certainly less than 5% of all so-called instruction offered in this media connection could be considered genuine classical kung fu taught in the traditional manner!  Where highly advanced fighting forms are concerned, the percentage would be even smaller!  Starting in 1986 on through the 1990s Green Dragon’s staff acquired and evaluated hundreds of tapes from dozens of sources and couldn’t even find advanced combat forms comparable to what would be considered routine at Green Dragon!

Not only were potential students interested in learning true kung fu via the medium of tape stymied by the need to ferret the few available ‘gems’ from the vast preponderance of useless garbage flooding the market, but even those with some authentic background in training began to enter the scene with aberrations of their own!  Dedicated students participating actively in the arts for a period of years could begin to perceive quite easily the contrived evolution supposedly taking place as systems and styles were altered by artificial additions or modifications to add just enough of an ‘innovative’ nature to sell additional videotapes/DVDs.  A specific example of this latter development would be Wing Chun.

When your author did some ancillary training in Wing Chun in the early 1970s, the program was sharply defined and very specific as to procedures and content.  Simply stated, there were only three empty-hand forms to learn: the Sil Li Do, Bil Jie, and Chum Kil; two weapons: long pole and butterfly knives; and the 108 moves practiced on the mook joong dummy.  These five categories comprised the entire system.  Period!  The tradition as relayed at that time was that Wu Mei, one of the five legendary survivors of the Shaolin Temple destruction (along with Fung Do Duk, Bok Mei Too Jung, Mew Hin Too Jung, and Head Abbot Jee Shin Shim She) was in hiding from the Manchus in the village where Yim Wing Chun lived; in return for her hospitality, Wu Mei taught her these five components of an obviously larger system, but had to leave the area before the instruction was complete as military units of the occupying Ching Dynasty army were closing in.  To honor his wife, the husband of Yim Wing Chun named the system after her.  The Wing Chun Style, though incomplete as such, gained great popularity and notoriety primarily for its unique blocking system while also enjoying some celebrity associations as well (the great modern Master Yip Man is reputed to have coached Bruce Lee).  However, proponents who were objective and honest were likewise critical of some areas of insufficiency — i.e., kicking combinations were very limited (some would say non-existent!), maneuvering was problematic, and defense against low gate attacks were weak — all no doubt factors yet to be taught had Wu Mei had the time and opportunity.  This scenario of development was generally agreed upon across the board in legitimate Wing Chun circles.  Regardless, several years into its growing popularity when many tapes on the ‘basics’ were available from multiple sources, the unscrupulous had to find a way to market their competing videos and we suddenly begin to see articles, tapes, and advertisements on a series of ‘hidden or secret’ aspects to Wing Chun — i.e., Wing Chun’s ‘secret kicking techniques’, the ‘low blocking techniques’ of Wing Chun, Wing Chun’s ‘strikes to the vital areas’, the ‘throwing techniques’ of Wing Chun, etc., etc.. What was happening was obvious; namely, students with a sprinkling of training in other areas (or just an overactive imagination) needed to distinguish their tape(s) from all those already on the market, and used the expedient of differentiating theirs by adding on various things that Wu Mei never taught!

Some have suggested that these add-ons, however originating in the realm of make-believe, are merely sincere efforts at consolidation and may actually improve a style.  Ridiculous!  It’s true that efforts at consolidating material may actually advance a style in exponential ways if they are conducted by knowledgable masters highly advanced in the Art. Historically major consolidations by such legendary figures as Yao Fei in the 12th Century, the undefeated triumvirate for 44 years of Kioh Yuan, Pai Yu Fong, and O Man Li in the 16th century, and the epochal White Lotus consolidating event in the 18th century are certainly ample evidence for what can eventuate from true efforts to combine material of diverse origination.  Although not representing a contribution of monumental significance such as the foregoing three examples, classical kung fu is historically riddled with examples of great styles originating as a synthesis of two or more unlike styles.  A small sampling of notable examples might include: N. Praying Mantis.  This very popular system was supposedly innovated by Master Wong Long circa 1965 in the Liu District of Shantung Province and this represents his basic training at the Hor Nan Shaolin Temple combined with elements from as many as 17 other styles.  The resulting work, Tang Lang Mantis, has branched into at least nine major subdivisions.

The Choy Li Fut consolidation is much more complex yet.  One version relates that subsequent to the rise of the six major southern systems (Hung, Li, Choy, Mok, Lau, and Fut Gar) Master Chan Hueng spent four years each with Grandmaster Li emphasizing hand technique, and Grandmaster Choy emphasizing foot technique.  An outstanding student of Master Hueng was Chang Hung Sing who went to Tien Shan to learn Fut Gar from the famous Green Grass Monk.  He brought the teaching back to Master Hueng and in 1836 they named the combined system “Choy Li Fut” to honor their three masters.  Even concerted efforts at individual self-improvement entail an aspect of consolidation. After his unqualified victory in the National Tournament in 1933, the eminent Master Tung Sheng Ch’ang is reputed to have traveled extensively all over mainland China seeking out different teachers known to be famous for certain movements or fighting forms and continuing the quest until he had learned the specialities of some seventy different Masters, having humbly played the role of student even though he could doubtless have defeated any of them.

In Part III we’ll discuss the negative ramifications of Wu Shu and the ‘internal‘ systems.

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