IS THERE A FUTURE FOR CLASSICAL KUNG FU? PART III

 

Sifu Allen Breaking

We closed out Part II of this analysis by digressing to acknowledge the obvious significance of consolidations in the history of classical Kung fu; however, our subject in review was the flooding of the instructional videotapes/DVDs market with bastardized material of all kinds. Regardless of values or intentions, now any idiot with a camera could film whatever nonsense occurred to his severely limited imagination and become a heretofore unknown purveyor of ‘teaching’ supposedly depicting training programs and procedures kept secret for centuries–secret systems, techniques, strategies, etc., which rapidly became the rage, and the proliferation of such crap went absolutely ballistic!  This trend, still on-going, was especially evident in the area of ‘ch’i’ or internal power generation and augmentation.  Though the ‘secrecy’ element is still being exploited, it was quickly realized that the subject of ‘internal power’ development was more intriguing,easier to sensationalize, and harder to verify so that attention was shifted to that aspect of the Arts.

The propensity to deceive became increasingly pronounced by narrowing the focus to the borderline ‘mystical’ or straight-out mythological skills and capabilities a minority of the more eminent grandmasters were said to have possessed: such questionable teaching as delayed death touch, the many versions of ‘poison hand’ practice, ch’i projection, jumping great distances and heights, light body kung fu, etc., etc., rapidly sensationalized that genre of the kung fu arts – not mentioning, of course, two critical qualifications:

1. IF any of the super ‘powers’ and miraculous abilities so graphically portrayed by the special effects wizards in the movies do have any validity in proportion to their film depiction (ruling out altogether ‘flying’ and ‘walking on water’ from sensible consideration!), that knowledge was the exclusive and closely guarded property of exceptional skill.  Attainment of such expertise would be extremely rare and would require every waking moment, every ounce of energy, and an indomitable strength of will to achieve – hardly the picture of today’s student profile (see No. 2 below). Further, any such unusual abilities were infrequently transmitted to disciples, and, hence, almost always went to the grave with the master who acquired them!  In the modern era (post 1930s) such teaching no longer exists, a fact attested to by the greatest masters of the last 100 years.

2. Students starting out in Kung fu from a motivation based on the acquisition of such extraordinary skills and powers haven’t the remotest clue what the extreme training demands would be like to develop them – the vast majority can’t rise to the challenge of standard basic training.  The higher the level of kung fu material that is available (though the majority of schools don’t have it to offer!) is easily tantamount to the training demands of any professional contact/combat sport or of top athletes training for the Olympic Games.  Despite this fact, students here in the 21st century entertain the most naive concepts imaginable in terms of what they say they wish to achieve over against the actual efforts they’re willing to expend!!  By way of contrast, a recent television program on the U. S. women’s synchronized swimming team related their ‘normal’ training schedule as eight hours a day, six days a week!  Top gymnast routinely maintain that same kind of demanding schedule.  Nevertheless, beginning kung fu students evidently feel they can take on the harsh challenge of classical kung fu that represents learning a greater quantity of things, most of which are technically more difficult than other sporting endeavors: literally hundreds of steps, combinations, fighting forms, weapons’ manipulations, and exercise programs of all kinds; and simply acquire a working expertise with the minimum expenditure of time and effort.  Dream on!

Summarily, we’re down to Wu Shu and the diverse range of the internal styles, the latter represented by the manifold versions attendant to Tai Chi Ch’uan, Pa Kua Chang, and Hsing Yi Ch’uan.  Most of the periodicals still being published are comprised of some mix of the two and the instructional tapes advertised number in the hundreds!  Quite naturally, whatever art the student has selected to dedicate him or herself to will be regarded as the best of available worlds; no one reasonably expects an individual to select an activity they feel is inferior to another or to accept instruction from a teacher not as highly regarded as another in the field.  My issues with these two categories are systemic problems inherent in each which might best be illustrated by two experiences your author had during coverage of the 1989 Nationals in Houston, TX.

Regarding Wu Shu first, let’s state the positive: it’s an art devised in the post WW II era to standardize the countless forms indigenous to classical kung fu (which number in the untold thousands!) by reducing all styles it portends to represent to the same core of basics while combining those styles with elements of dance and gymnastics.  It requires a great deal of athleticism, excellent coordination, and extreme agility.  Not unlike karate, the built-in similarities and uniformity of basics make it easier to judge in the tournament format, a singular difficulty that classical kung fu never overcame.  On the negative side, it doesn’t give sufficient attention to power building and strength enhancement, the moves, techniques, and combinations are not uniformity practical, and the extreme flexibility required is prohibitive for many students.  The stress on speed of execution coupled with the acrobatic elements give it a dynamism to watch that doesn’t always carry over to the combat situation, and forces the creation of artificial measures to maintain the desired appearance – the use of weapons devoid of combat specifications is a good example.

This brings me to Experience #1 alluded to previously as it pertains to Wu Shu.  During the 1989 Nationals in Houston, myself and several of my senior students were accosted on the hotel elevator by one of the ‘star’ Wu Shu performers demanding to know why I was so prejudicial and critical of the sport.  I said: “Let’s make this short–do you have a 9-Ring Broadsword form in your tournament repertoire?”  His answer was in the affirmative.  I then said: “I’ll bet you $1,000 you can’t do the form at your usual level of ability using my sword.”  No response. So I continued: “I’ll tell you what, forget betting on it, I’ll give you the $1,000 if you can even complete your set with my 9-Ring, regardless of the quality of your performance!”  No response.  End of discussion.  He got the point.  Unfortunately, many don’t.

Grasp the scope of the problem: if all Wu Shu weapons competitions were required to use only real weapons that have the more substantial combat specifications the vast majority simply couldn’t complete!  These powder puff illegitimate mock-ups that Wu Shu employs, most of which are of negligible weight – certainly just ounces to the pound – are utilized in order to maintain the speed and complete the acrobatics that use of real weapons would render impossible; hence, weapons work devoid of combat specifications is deceiving, impractical, and unrealistic.  Many other elements of Wu Shu default to the same kind of analysis.  Distances traveled on the floor between techniques, for example, in order to build momentum for aerial and similar acrobatic movements have no practical application in themselves!

The ‘internal systems’ generally breed excesses which are far worse in their potential ramifications than those of Wu Shu.  Experience #2 is only one representative example of where the numerous abuses may lead.  Again at the Houston Nationals, I’m in the process of videotaping a portion of the free-sparring event, incidentally positioned next to a guy who could pass for a clone of Don Knotts combined with Dobie Gillis. He looked like a cross between a study in pernicious anemia and an experiment in food deprivation.  I’m sure the only challenging and serious physical threat he’d ever experienced was a strong gust of wind!  Regardless, here he was with a following of fawning sycophants who he was regaling with visions of his superiority while they were salivating over every word of his critique about the fighters out on the floor.  The essence of his storyline concerned the participants lack of internal power as contrasted with his, the differential being of such magnitude that he could literally radiate enough ch’i to decide any issue by just walking out on the floor!!  I offered a ‘firm’ hand of introduction and it was patently obvious from his grip that he hadn’t the strength of whatever type or kind to fight his way out of a piece of wet toilet paper!  It was further quite clear that he was thoroughly intimidated by the presence of Green Dragon personnel and would have much preferred to move away discreetly; however, I grabbed him just above the elbow (for control), and politely asked for any kind of a small demonstration of this unbelievable power-generating capability.  Back came the standard answer to such an inquiry: “If I were to use my power, you would run the risk of serious injury!”  My retort to such nonsense is a counter question: “Doesn’t internal power of this degree require years of special programming to develop, and isn’t the very essence of its nature and manifestation a matter of purposeful direction and control?”  As expected, no response.  I turned him loose.  He and his students got the point.

When you’ve had the rare opportunity to both witness and experience someone with true serious internal power capabilities, you’ll have no difficulty whatsoever in discerning the genuine from the counterfeit.  Whether built up from years of practice on the three main internal systems, or as the result of special programming, like the various stages in Iron Palm training, to attain mastery (there is no limit!) requires years of diligent practice, an unbroken workout regimen that mandates a daily commitment, and unremitting attention focused on constant effort toward improvement.  Grandmaster Gene L. Chicoine, for example, whose legendary feats of breaking are indicative of extraordinary power attained through specialization on Iron Palm for over 50 years is demonstrative of what can be accomplished, though very few there be that could match his dedication necessary to produce such an incredible level of internal strength and ability.  Routinely able to literally cut through 8 concrete blocks set on end in domino fashion, with a short throw knife-hand strike, or smashing through a stack of six 2X12 boards with either elbow or fist, or piercing multiple pine boards in a finger strike, the economy of his power is obvious and unquestionable, and always subject to his regulation, direction, and control.

The concept of ch’i and what can be accomplished with it has great appeal; unfortunately, the years a of unrelenting effort to acquire it does not.

One thought on “IS THERE A FUTURE FOR CLASSICAL KUNG FU? PART III

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading this series. Another thing that contributes to all this is how our society has become obsessed with instant gratification. Martial arts students don’t have the patience, endurance or attention span to practice standing in horse stances for long periods if time, let alone the will power to endure discomfort of any kind. With MMA, they train in boxing, wrestling, Jiu Jitsu or Judo techniques for a few months and then go on into the ring. In the last 15 years every person I tried to show even a basic horse riding stance to gave up. There legs started shaking after 5 minutes and they decided it was too hard!

    I was introduced to the Chinese Martial Arts in 1995 by a former Green Dragon student from the late 1970’s. What he could do blew my mind. I’d spent some of my teen years dabbling in boxing, but when I met my instructor for the first time, he mowed right through me like I wasn’t even there. His stances were so strong that I never saw anyone even come close to throwing him. He had punches like cinder blocks. I watched him easily take down boxers, wrestlers, even another guy who claimed to be proficient in 7 star praying mantis (couldn’t even break one brick but one of my instructor’s tiny female Asian students later showed him up in front of his entire class and that was without any formal iron palm training!)

    I learned several forms from the Green Dragon videos and I’ve never seen anything comparable since. Thank you for this series of articles Sifu Allen. Even with the future of classical Chinese martial arts in question, one certainty is that anything of any real value is obtained through hard work and perseverance!

    Like

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