Kung Fu’s “Changing Times”

24 12 2014

Let’s organize this article differently first. I would like to introduce the conclusion first, then the body. That should make this interesting….

Like it or not, Kung Fu is changing. It isn’t the “old days” anymore. You are now a dinosaur. Yes, you probably can’t relate to today’s Sifu–and especially today’s students. But guess what? These arts are older than the word “old”, and there was a time that some Sifu looked at what you called the “old days”, shook his head, and couldn’t relate. Bottom line… The martial arts is an ancient, but ever-changing, art. The key to staying relevant is to realize what the changes are, and to find a way to make the most of those changes.

Edit:  Instructor Charles Kwok (Hung Gar teacher in Richmond, Canada. He studies Mok Kwai Lan Hung Gar under Sifu Joseph Kwok, and Wang Kiu Wing Chun under Sifu Ray Van Raamsdonk) posed the following statement:

Been watching a few documentaries about different styles of kung fu. Many of them talk about the old days in Hong Kong. I noticed a common phrase they would use and that is “In the old days, life was hard.” So life was hard back then, the economy wasn’t great, so people had to work. However, they also all talk about how students would still show up to the school and practice hard. Nowadays I keep hearing people say that they have to work and therefore miss class. Kind of confusing if you asked me.

Something we often hear in the Chinese martial arts is how much older the Chinese arts is than other arts. We love to brag about how the Chinese culture birthed the “mother martial art” to other countries’ arts and other styles. On the other hand, there are many who consider Chinese martial artists as guys stuck in the past, who refuse to allow their arts to change and evolve. Even many that are considered classical and outdated (compared to modern/mixed styles) look at the Chinese martial artist and think how useless our arts happen to be. At the same time, the two groups may not realize that the other is here to stay, and both groups are as valid as any other. A good analogy is to look at the acceptance of rap music in American pop culture. When rap music was born, many thought it a fad that would be isolated among African American urban youth (even older African Americans scoffed at it)–and now look. Hip Hop culture is the single most influential form of pop culture in the world. While the African American may be seen as a second class citizen in America–Hip Hop culture as a subculture of the African American community has influenced music, dress, behavior, standards of beauty on every continent on the planet. Likewise, both MMA and Chinese martial arts are found in everything from the fitness industry, to fashion, to children’s cartoons, to applications in health care, and in every form of media.

Like I said, you just have to find your place.

The old days saw martial artists who were die-hard fanatics. People walked on the street wearing martial arts uniforms. My colleagues and I even passed up college educations to study the martial arts full-time. We took whatever abuse our teachers dished out in class, trained until our knuckles bled, and if we broke a bone–we took off the cast and fought in tournaments. One thing our Masters could count on… tomorrow night, regardless if it was Christmas Eve, we were hurt, or the lights were cut off–we were coming to class. Fighters were even tougher. They fought anyone anytime anywhere, and no one bickered over money. You accepted whatever the promoter was willing to pay, regardless of the rules or how long you had to train. The only thing that mattered was there was an opponent and I wanted to prove that I could beat him. Today? HUH! Fighters cancel fights because they got hurt in training. Go figure…

Teachers lament the caliber of students we attract today. When I came to Jow Ga in the 80s, my Sifu told my family I was too young–and I was 11. We visited three times, and had it not been for my Si Hing Raymond Wong, I might have gone to another school. But today’s Sifu is promoting kids younger than 11 to Sifu (and they call that a “Black Sash”, whatever that is). 😉  Today’s student is lazy, worried that he might get hurt, impatient, thinks the Sifu works for HIM since he is paying him, will quit if work gets busy/he gets married/has a child/finds a kwoon with more convenient classes or lower rates. Today’s student is younger, more fickle and impulsive, thinks he knows everything, will research your system’s history and argue that Shaolin is a fable and Da Mo didn’t create kung fu, blah blah blah….

But we have to understand that even the Kung Fu Sifu has changed, along with the art and the student, as well as how we run our schools. First of all, more information is available to students today than it was 30+ years ago. You have students who research all over the world via the internet before walking through your doors. Hell, with Youtube, I wouldn’t be surprised if guys joined your schools already knowing your school’s first form! The economy demands that teachers take on more students than he needed to 40 years ago. At one time, Kung Fu was only for the tough, and either you were strong enough to handle the training, or your took your sissy self to a dance studio. You can’t do that today, where rent is $2,000/month and students who get hurt will sue you. The martial arts, if it is to survive in today’s economy, must cater to the masses to a point. Either that, or you have a class for the average guy walking through your door–and a separate class for the hard-core students. Many of us have not found that middle ground, so we are either suffering financially or making a living but unable to put out the quality that our own Masters did. We also must understand that today’s student is more educated, probably has more on his plate than yesterday’s student, and has far more teachers and schools and lineages to choose from. Simply put, it takes more effort to retain students than it did yesteryear. We also must find a way to make what we do more relevant to the lives of the types of students we encounter today.

Teachers often have to decide if they will focus on fighting, form, competition, lion dance, fitness, children, street self-defense, or simply preserving the art. Yes, it is possible to do all of the above. However, there are far more Sifu in every city than there was 30 years ago when our Masters arrived on these shores (wherever “these shores” happen to be). Competition is fierce. Students are also more critical. When I lived in Baltimore in the 90s, I took students to a tournament and fought as a light weight. I won my division, but as usual, I lost to a larger opponent for Grands. Matter of fact, I sometimes beat the heavyweights, but found problems with faster-but-still-stronger middle weights. No biggie, Guro lost a match, and Monday it’s back to the grind at the school. Yet, today, a loss could mean a loss of students, as we real guys must compete against Masters who have claimed to have never lost a fight and movie characters who could beat 10 men, etc. There wasn’t pressure on teachers in the 80s to fight and be a champion, but in today’s community we have several “World Champion 10th Degree Grandmasters” in every city! Advertising is not as easy as it was years ago when you could simply say you teach Kung Fu and people joined. Today, you need to be slick, have a nice logo/slogan, claim a high rank, dress your school up like a Shaolin temple or MMA gym… It’s just not as bad a thing as it seems. Kung Fu in Hong Kong in the 60s is unlike in the hometown its masters came from in the 40s. Kung Fu systems under the founders are unlike they are today, even 20 years ago under your Grandmasters. We just have to find where the martial arts fits in the society we live in–then find a way to apply our knowledge in that society… not much different than finding out how techniques from the form must be applied when fighting for your life. In a way, the martial arts aren’t supposed to stay the same from generation to generation. So, the next time we point a finger at younger Sifus and shake our heads, remember that once upon a time, some old, grumpy Sifu pointed his finger at us and shook his head. 🙂

Yeah, you’re right, times have changed.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.


The “Tools” of Kung Fu Weapons

21 12 2014

Sam Jeet

Attend any open tournament and one would probably find that “Chinese Style Weapons” is possibly the most interesting division. Our schools are decorated with them. Any CMA style has a larger variety of them than most other systems. As students, we are excited at the thought of learning each new, exotic weapon as we progress through the ranks.

But what purpose does learning these arts serve? Besides the obvious “cool” factor, what is the practical benefit to learning the kwan dao, the gim, the sern bin, the sam jit gwun? If you’re like the rest of us, you have the canned answer that “learning all these weapons allows the kung fu man to pick up any object and use it for self-defense purposes”. Come on, you know you say it. Hell, most of our Sifus put it on flyers. Some of you probably added, “–have you seen a Jackie Chan movie?” (lol)

Mostly, I agree with you. Learning such weapons as the steel whips, the double dagger, and the humble-but-king-of-weapons:  the lowly staff–will give the martial artist a foundation that will enable almost anything in his hand to turn you into a one man tornado of death. 🙂  However, we must add that it won’t be automatic. The way most of us practice weapons actually won’t give you those butt-kicking skills. You might be offended, but the way most of us were trained, you probably can’t even pick up a broadsword and kick someone’s butt with it. It’s all in how you actually view these weapons.

If you look at kung fu weaponry the way a mechanic views his tools, then you are on the right track. Unfortunately, most martial artists do not. We see a Kung Fu weapon as a cheerleader’s baton, or a set of pom-poms. Some of you treat your three sectioned staffs as musical instruments–the floor is the drum, and your weapon as drumsticks. When looking at Traditional Chinese Martial Arts weapons demonstrations, there will always be someone asking the perplexing question, “Yeah, but can you fight?”


Well, can you?

Looking at how most TCMA practitioners practice with their weapons, an actual match with the weapon would leave the average Kung Fu man stumped. Honestly, most of us have NEVER sparred with our weapons. We know forms with the weapons. We can “demonstrate” (quotation marks added for emphasis) application, as long as our partner doesn’t actually try to attack us. But fight with these things, we’ve never really done. So we are relying on the same thing as the McDojo students with our supposed ability with our skill… We hope these skills will work, but in reality we don’t actually know. Because of the price on these weapons, we don’t even practice our 2-man sets with any real intent. You and I both know, if you’ve actually done a 2 man set with intensity, that going through the form ONCE with power and intensity you’ll completely ruin a good set of weapons.

When a mechanic learns to change an alternator, he knows the first thing he should do is to test the alternator before telling a customer to spend his money. His knowledge of other skills within the automechanic field will help him do this, in the same way a Kung Fu man must have knowledge of other skills in fighting and combat will enhance his ability to use his weapons. The mechanic knows that he must disconnect his battery for a reason. He must have certain tools on hand to loosen bolts, to pry the alternator from it’s space, to remove the belt… Some tools will have various uses in varying stages of the work. And each vehicle will have a different process to the job, although the outcome may be the same.

For the martial artist, there are universal principles with the weapon. There are some techniques that are emphasized for specific weapons, just as there are techniques that cannot or should not be used with those weapons. Some skills can be applied to other weapons; some cannot. Skill with each weapon must be learned, trained and developed individually. Skills with the Kwan Dao may seem like those of the Cheung, but knowing how to use to the Kwan does not mean you are skilled with the spear. A slash with the gim is very different from a slash with the dao. You must understand the nuances and intricasies of each weapon. They are different weapons that require specialized skill, and although they may complement each other–they are separate, yet related, skills. For the martial artist to simply learn a weapons form as an item on his system’s curriculum without deep insight, training and research is to do one’s system a disservice. Form is not enough.

I would like to offer some tips to assist you in your search for more understanding of your system’s weapons:

  • Divide your weapons form into attacks, defenses, and counterattacks. Some techniques may have alternative applications and uses
  • Identify foundation skills with that weapon. For example, the 8 attacks with the Staff, three pokes with the Spear, and five blocks with the short swords. These foundational skills must be trained regularly and individually as skills–not just as part of the form
  • Practice the foundation skills more than you practice the form
  • Identify uses for your weapon in combat:  to break bones, to throw the opponent, to stab organs, to cut or destroy limbs, to disarm the opponent, to destroy the opponent’s weapon… These things are your weapon’s “tools”
  • Find a simulated way to practice your weapons, so that you can beat the weapon up without having to replace a $200 sword every few weeks. One suggestion is to use toy plastic bats for your double broadswords
  • Speaking of double broadswords, have you ever struck anything full power with yours? I have, and it taught me a lot about the use of that weapon. Try it, and you will find that there are many intricasies to learn when employing your weapon full power. A fight is the wrong place to discover how difficult it is to swing a weapon with bad intentions
  • Find an Eskrima tournament, a Cold Steel tournament, an SCA event, or a Chanbara tournament. These are some great places to put your weapons ability to the test without getting hurt, and can be eye-opening. There are people who have one-upped the TCMA community with weapons skills, we really need to get out there and find out what I’m talking about
  • Put together some safe sparring in your schools for your students to try out their weapons skills. It’s another level to aspire to in the martial arts, and many of us are unaware that this level even exists
  • Bridge the gap between what works in sparring and what’s found in your form. Believe it or not, the gap in the Chinese martial arts is actually very small. Most of what is in our systems works; we just need to discover how they work. Getting a feel for these weapons in an environment other than a choreographed form

Many schools have a very good grasp on the use of weapons for fighting. Overall, I believe that the Wing Chun community and the Choy Lay Fut community have done a very good job of doing so with their weapons work. For most of us, we have limited our knowledge and skill to simply the skill of performing a form–and there is so much more in the arts than that. Please take this advice and discover for yourself a whole new world within the Chinese martial arts, even if you realize that you may be a novice… and take your Kung Fu to another level.

Thanks for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

Clouding Your Kung Fu Mind

11 12 2014

A conversation I have often had with Kung Fu practitioners is that I lament the diluting of Chinese martial artists these days. In the traditional Chinese martial arts–the TCMAs–we have two extremes in modern times. On one hand, there are the highly idealistic practitioners who teach exactly as they learned it without modifying or modernizing anything. They practice only forms, fight from a cat stance if they fight at all, and basically have no idea how to fill the needs of the average person seeking self defense. At the far right of this discussion, we have the SanDa/San Shou practitioner who loves to fight. Regardless of what system he studies, his entire repertoire looks exactly like every other fighter at the events he frequents. He may be a Tong Long student, a Hung Gar student, a Wing Chun student–but in the gym he looks like a Muay Thai guy. Kung Fu just doesn’t seem to be Kung Fu anymore.

But somewhere in the middle there are the rest of us, who do a mixture of traditional training and modern methods. We shadowbox, we do roadwork for our wind, but we also practice our Sei Ping Ma, Chi Sao and use the all metal Kwan Do for our strength training. Our forms may have a little extra zing in it, based on our taste and research as modern students of the art. We may do our techniques with the fist rather than the Fu Jow because it seems more practical. We may have boxed for a few months to gain an understanding on how that style of fighting works–and then import those lessons to our Choy Lay Fut.

All those things are good, but please, don’t cloud your Kung Fu mind, or you run the risk of diluting your system.

Before I get jumped on by the guys at the Kung Fu online forums, here’s a test:

Can YOU fight using only techniques from your system’s first form? No jabs, no round house kcks, no clinching… Just the techniques from your first form’s techniques?

If not, read on.

This is my point. Many of us love our systems and we have a few bread and butter techniques that we hold dear to. Most of us, however, have almost nothing in the form that we actually use in sparring or street fighting. Those of us who can fight, most likely use what every other guy uses. We have boxing punches, Muay Thai kicks, and jujitsu takedowns. Our mind simply cannot wrap itself around the idea of taking our classical techniques and fighting a mugger at the ATM with them or taking them into the ring. I have a Si Hing who was a boxer before joining Jow Ga, and he used his background in applying his Jow Ga. I respect him, I honor him and his version of Jow Ga, but I believe there is another level that the art could have been taken to and that is where I arrived to this philosophy. Chinese martial arts systems are very valid forms of fighting and they really don’t need to be cross pollinated with other styles of fighting. To do so is not bad; I do it myself. But I understand that there is a dimension that I must strive for and for the last ten years, my personal journey in Jow Ga has been guided by this idea. Any system’s first form can be broken down into bite-sized pieces of gold and used in fighting without any help from outside systems. The hard part is making it happen. Once you do so, you will understand your system better than most other practitioners. Give yourself six months of foreign system-free training, and see where it takes you.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

Critique the Master

2 12 2014

Ah, yes. Analyze the master, even if you have to find fault with the way he did things. Understand that no man (or woman) is above reproach, and as long as we are human there will always be room for improvement. We strive for perfection, but no man should ever believe he has arrived at that point. For the moment you believe you have perfected the martial arts, you have just initiated your demise. Perfection, my brothers, is a never-ending, always out of reach plateau. You may get near it, you may realize you are approaching it, but the closer you reach perfection, you will realize a new goal or challenge. In order to become the perfect martial artists, you must always be in pursuit of it.

(My #1 gripe with Bruce Lee fans, btw–many hurt their own growth because they believe in Lee’s doctrine without question, without deviating from his path when the man was 32 years old…)

If your Sifu has done his job right, the day you become a full instructor, you should be the absolute best product he could produce. We martial arts teachers are a curious bunch. We honor our Masters and teachers by hoping to become the best Kung Fu fighters we can, but in order to do so, we must improve our teachers and their systems. We are often friendly and cordial with each other, but inside our minds, we think we are better than the next guy and do our best to show it. Some of us actually call each other up and tease each other about being better. Some of us take it personal and actually dislike our “competition”. Some of us are in competition with our own brothers. My Si Hing Chris Henderson and I used to kill each other with insults because he owned a Kung Fu school and I worked for a commercial Dojo. When I encountered his students in tournaments I would tell my students to get those “Wu Shu artists”. Another Si Hing of mine would call me a traitor whenever he saw me in a Karate uniform point fighting, telling me I was playing Tag. I would tease another Si Hing, Ron Wheeler, for being a break dancer in a Kung Fu uniform–and he’d tease me about the time he popped me in the nose when we fought at American University (I won lol). My Baltimore friends, who represented four different styles, were my opponents every month in tournaments up and down the 95. Through all of this, we sought to improve ourselves and improve each other through friendly (and not-so-friendly) competition. Yet the one person with whom we should also compete against is the person we often refuse to oppose: Our own Masters.

If we teach our respective styles without acknowledging the potential or need for improvement, our system will not improve. How can you teach your students to develop an unstoppable attack if we do not understand where our weaknesses lie? How can you give your students an impenetrable defense if you do not also teach them how they can potentially be beaten? In the Filipino martial arts, there is a term called “counter for the counter”. When you teach an attack, you must identify the possible counters to that attack, then you must learn how to counter that counter. In other words, in order to understand your system better, you must understand how to beat the system your Master taught you. Many of you are not psychologically ready to face this. Too many believe that their system cannot be improved. Too many believe it would be disrespectful to question what your Sifu taught, or if they had made any mistakes when they taught you. I would suggest that your Sifu very likely improved the art his own Sifu taught him when he taught you, however. Very few of us teach exactly as we were taught. Most of us have our own specialties, our own weaknesses, and things that we like in the art. Doesn’t it make sense to personalize our Hung Gar, our Wing Chun, our Tong Lung, our Choy Lay Fut–so that our students can get the best we can offer?

There are few ways to do this without changing your Sifu’s curriculum. One way is to omit those things you cannot do well. Another is to send your students to various classmates who can perform skills in your system better than you can. You can also elect to emphasize some skills and forms more than others, based on your own taste. But more often than not–you will have to change many things to fit your own individuality as a teacher, and your student’s learning ability, physical limitations or gifts, and needs.

When formulating your school’s lesson plans, it would be very fair to your student to find the most efficient, effective means to results that you can. Our teachers did not know everything. We must admit that. Of course, we respect our masters, but we do them a disservice by idolizing them and deifying them to the point that their legacy is ruined because we are too much in adoration to allow their art to grow. Don’t simply take the training plan you had as a student and regurgitate it without thought. Think of things that you and your classmates struggle with. Is there a way to make it easier to learn? Was there something in your Sifu’s school that caused a many students to drop out? It isn’t fair to just say they were “losers” or “weak”. Did you have classmates who did not get results? Have you found many instances of beginners becoming better than advanced students? Or, let’s just cut to the chase… Can you find a better way to teach than your teacher? Is there anything in the curriculum that is impractical, needs an overhaul, or needs to be emphasized? You are now the Sifu, give your students what they are paying for!

This is one reason I am not in favor of newly made Sifus being allowed to leave right out and open schools. Either that, or we should give instructor candidates ample time to work out those things out before getting in front of a student body. Once the instructor-student has learned the art, he or she may need time to fully absorb and understand the system before it is presented and taught to new students. We want to be fair to our students, and our students’ students by making sure that the art we are giving them has been absorbed, tested, developed and revised. New Sifus must be comfortable enough with the art–with his teacher’s art–to look at it with a critical art, and not be afraid to say, “I’ve improved my teacher’s art.” It is not a slap in your Sifu’s face to say that. In fact, it is a compliment. You are saying, “Sifu, I have learned your art and I have found a way to make it fit me better.”

Saying so means that your Sifu has done more than just taught a student; he has created a confident and wise Sifu-student who has become more than just a certified instructor, he has become a peer.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.