Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Applied Kung Fu

13 02 2016

This blog was originally intended to be for a Jow Ga audience, but it seems that most of my feedback has come from non-Jow Ga practitioners. So, while I will be writing these articles from the point of view of a Jow Ga practitioner–you may notice that I will occasionally reference non-Jow Ga or tag other styles in my articles.

One of the calling cards of Jow Ga students that local martial artists will notice is how our students emphasize low, strong stances. I’ve even heard some mention it as if our low stances were over-emphasized like it was a bad thing. I’d like to use that notion as a point of reference for the rest of this article.

First, understand that Chinese martial arts in general tends to emphasize low, strong stances as one of the building blocks of our systems. Some styles do not, but if the first thing your Sifu taught was some version of the Horse Stance–chances are pretty good that your system claims to emphasize strong, low stances. However, what happens later in training? Are stances then unimportant? I have a theory:

  • Kung Fu people tend to be of three types. 1. Traditional curriculum-based practitioners–They practice curriculum material, some excel at it, others casually practice it–but there is very little introspection and/or innovation. 2. Fighters–Emphasize fighting of any type over tradition, from tournament to full contact to streetfighting. Plenty of innovation and reconstructing of technique, whether with the base system or not. 3. Forms specialists, philosophers and lion dancers–This is where I put everyone else. This group learns and barely practices the curriculum, outside of forms for performance. There is little sparring, very little breaking down of the system, and applied martial arts is secondary to whatever it is the Sifu chooses to specialize in.
  • Of the three types, the fighter is usually the primary detractor of traditional stance work. Traditional stances simply have very little use in their chosen piece of the field. They can’t use it while fighting, it’s not mobile enough, can’t seem to make sense out of traditional footwork with these fighting techniques we use in the ring… you name it. The other two types rarely think about it.
  • Fighters are quick to label traditional stances and footwork as “outdated” and impractical.  This is the primary reason we abandon the training after the first few forms. Practitioners learn to hold their guards and therefore stop practicing chambered punches. They dance in their footwork rather than stand. They stand upright for mobility instead of sitting for good rooting. I blame this on the simplification of Kung Fu–rather than a full understanding of how to apply it. So we end up with two sets of fighter/Kung Fu men:  those who keep traditional kung fu, but teach a separate set of skills for fighting–versus those who simply discard the traditional in favor of more modern methods altogether.
  • Kung Fu Sifu, then, become followers of the trend, rather than stand rooted in their theories. And here is the culprit; every traditional Sifu will argue all day long about how traditional stances are useful and practical in fighting. Yet how many can actually prove their theories? Very few, you and I both know that. So blame the economy, blame the lack of dedicated students, blame the faith of the modern kung fu student–but ultimately, the blame lies on those of us who teach the art, yet cannot convince our students that the traditional can hold its own against the modern. The result is that our traditional skills are either (foolishly) deemed “too deadly for the ring” or simply not sufficient or applicable to fighting.

The Solution

I have said this over and over on my Filipino Martial Arts blog, Filipino Fighting Secrets:  Not only are there too many of us out here teaching the art, there are too many of us out here teaching who do not have the skills, knowledge, and experience to be teachers. It’s worse for the Chinese martial arts. Most schools are led by men who simply have no fighting record at all. Not in light contact competition, not in full contact competition, not even in the street. Too many Kung Fu students are being brought to tournaments by Sifus who don’t even own a set of sparring gear–let alone ever wore any. When our schools are being led by men who never fought, the students will be lost in any kind of combat, whether simulated, sportive, or real. The solution is simple, but not easy. This next generations of Kung Fu experts must be taught more than just curriculum, theories, and form. Your understanding of what your system has to offer shouldn’t rely on your knowledge of Muay Thai or Brazilian Jujitsu. Future generations of Sifus must be well-researched and given ample time to question what you are teaching and call your theories to the carpet; you cannot hide from their doubts. You cannot pass on your insecurities about whether your system really holds up to boxers and grapplers, and if the only way you can win a fight is to blind them or break their knees–you apparently aren’t skilled enough to be teaching “fighting”. Students must be encouraged to try their hand against other systems and other fighters, and win or lose–bring that experience to the classroom and figure out what happened… What works best, what needs to be tweaked, and how your traditional art can be used to stop or defeat those modern methods. And finally, students must be given enough time to really advance their skills and not rushed along some timeline of forms and exams (and exam fees). Given enough time to develop and fine tune, most martial arts students will have discovered things that they never would have if they rush through a curriculum. I’ve met young instructors who are barely out of their 20s who have already forgotten forms. It’s not a race!

And forgive me if I come across as insulting–but it starts with you, the Sifu. You must be the first guinea pig of your new thinking. I’ve seen Sifus put their students through workouts they know they couldn’t handle. I fixed a fighter’s gear once, when his own Sifu put it on for him–incorrectly. Travel outside of your city a few times if you need–and enter some fight contests. Train on everything you plan to teach, and test it out on other instructors to gain a clearer picture on how this stuff works. Basically, I’m telling you to walk the talk first, and practice what you preach. It’s only fair to your students, and will give you better insight when teaching.

Going back to the subject of traditional stances and footwork, consider this… if you observe the best boxers and grapplers, you will notice that under pressure, they sink in their stances for power and rooting. Almost all stances can be applied in some way while fighting–forward stances for power body shots, horse stance for hooks, upper cuts and evasive maneuvers, even cross stances when throwing. It’s not a matter of discovering what works in fighting; those things have already been investigated by our system’s creators. Rather, it is a process to discover how they work. There is a huge difference. As teachers and coaches, we all know how to throw a hook punch–but not everyone understands how to use the hook punch. And you cannot teach the hook punch without teaching how the stance and footwork is integrated with the hook. Only discovery and experimentation can give it to you.

Finally, I am a strong advocate of modern training. I just do not believe that modern training can replace the traditional, nor do I believe it should. They compliment each other. Can stances and traditional footwork be carried in the ring? Of course they can, but it’s not my job to teach you on this blog. Augment your traditional training with wind sprints, squats, hops, dancing by the round. Learn to move like a boxer, then find ways that your traditional footwork can be used against a boxer’s footwork. (Trust me, there are disadvantages to their footwork)  I would like to offer a few tips below:

  1. Build strong legs. You cannot rely on tactics alone. Tactics without strength is like a big engine with no gas. With strong legs, you will be more stable, your footwork will be more responsive and explosive, your hand work will be more powerful, and you will be more equipped to uproot the opponent with your footwork alone
  2. When you practice your footwork, label all movements and techniques as “advancing”, “retreating”, “evasive”, or “rooting”. This way, you can train for specific skills and applications. Not all stance and footwork training is equal
  3. Train your footwork explosively. Slow footwork with no sense of urgency is as useless as those forms you do, if you perform them without intensity and fighting spirit
  4. Make sure footwork training involves flanking and retreating
  5. Learn to alternate between strong stance position to mobility, and from being mobile to rooted positions. I cannot emphasize this enough. The most basic of these is what I call the initial attack:  Going from your resting fighting position into your first technique when attacking the opponent. Possibly 95% or more of fighters just cannot get off the line fast enough to attack an opponent. I’d put my money on this:  95% of those reading this article must sit back and try to understand what I mean by “get off the line fast enough to attack an opponent”
  6. ^^^ What that means is, to develop the ability to stand 3 feet away from an opponent and hit him with the first two hand techniques you throw–faster than he can block them or move away. Most people train as if your first two techniques will land. Look at how we hit the punching bag. Do you stand close enough to the bag to touch it when practicing? Or do you stand 3 feet away and close the distance each time you hit the bag? Ask yourself, “Where does the opponent stand, inside an arms distance or more than a leg’s distance?” Most fighters have to be pursued to hit. Train your footwork to catch them, faster than he can avoid your attack

Hopefully, you have found some useful points in this article… We are 1700 words in, so I’ll close here. If you like it, please comment and share! And don’t forget to subscribe!

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.


Roles of Martial Arts Friendships (Series)

5 02 2016

“Greatness is never created in a vacuum.”



I once heard a wise man say, that if an accomplished man ever told you he took his journey alone, you are listening to the words of an ungrateful man. The two sayings are connected; rarely does one man create greatness alone. He may be the mastermind of that greatness, but no man can do it alone. He may have thought up the entire plan for his climb but someone helped him. Perhaps they helped him in small ways–for example supporting him, assisting him, or even through conversations with him allowing him to work out his ideas verbally. Sometimes, that assistance can come through a rivalry when the competition fuels his drive to excel. Perhaps, it is some silent partner, student, or forgotten teacher who planted a seed that sprouted in the field of his imagination.

No man did it without help, and only a fool undertakes a mission alone.

The most well-known and greatest thinkers in the martial arts may have been given sole credit for their creations:

  • Bruce Lee
  • Chojun Miyagi
  • Mas Oyama
  • Helio Gracie
  • Yip Man
  • Wong Fei Hung

However, people rarely talk about the training partners, the rivals, the other teachers, the comrades with whom the Grandmaster-in-the-making shared his plans for evolution… History has a way of being biased like that. Even the greatest of prophets–Ibrahim/Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon them all)–had men in their presence whose contributions we know nothing about. I guarantee that each of these men assisted the other in some way, even if one was a follower of another.

Martial artists whether learning, developing, or teaching always need at least one martial arts friendship. This friendship need not necessarily be a training partner; that is simply one type of friendship. One of my best friends and training partners is a blind brother I taught Chi Sao to almost 30 years ago. He is terminally ill and I talk to him at least 4 or 5 times a month. Often, you can work out ideas simply by discussing them. Another close friend of mine is not a martial artist at all; he is a boxer who thinks 99% of martial artists are full of it. Yet, when he and I get together, he is more formidable than most martial artists I know. Although he downs the martial arts, due to our sparring sessions, he practices Eskrima and traps and elbows… all of which he incorporated into his “streetfighting” repertoire. I joke with him that he is a secret, “closet” martial artist, as he practices, trains, and uses these arts, but tells his colleagues they are “tricks” he picked up (he is a bodyguard and limo driver, and quite an effective streetfighter). I have several martial arts friends I mostly talk business with, who pick at me for my testosterone-laced flyers and advertisements and websites. Their advice is extremely valuable and humbling, as well as respected. Friendships where you both are like-minded and 100% in agreement are a waste of time; you improve when you disagree and must justify, argue, or defend your stance. It is through those exchanges that ideas are modified and sharpened. Remember that.

Today’s martial artist seem to gravitate towards their own kind. A roomful of men who agree on everything will leave that room having learned nothing during their time together. But get a roomful of Sifu/Sensei of different styles and mindsets, you will find that at the end of the day you will have a dynamic outcome… Some friendships will be built or severed, some will learn something new, some will go home questioning one’s own system, some will go home to train harder and investigate the arts deeper than they have ever done in their lives. Some will challenge each other. Some will fight and win, some will fight and lose. Some will chicken out, but go home to reflect on why confrontation made him uncomfortable. It is through this dessent–this disagreement–that martial artists evolve their ideas. They must be forced to defend their systems. Yes, you love Jow Ga or Wing Chun. Yes, you believe Praying Mantis is superior, or that Hung Gar is stronger. Yes, Bak Siu Lum or Tai Chi is more advanced… but why? If you do this, I can do that; what would you do then? This is where the rubber meets the road in martial arts relationships. In the classroom, you only need to show students what’s next and what’s in the curriculum. In the presence of your Sifu or your brothers, you only need to be personable and likeable. In public, your skills are irrelevant as long as you have decent lineage and an a nice personality. In none of these situations are you challenged to maintain skills or improve from wherever you were yesterday. Kung Fu is not something in which we should be stagnant. Unlike sports where 35 years old is considered past one’s prime, in the martial arts we are considered to be more valuable, more knowledgeable, and overall a better expert as we get older. How can this happen when you do not surround yourself with people who force you to become better? Do you improve simply by being involved in the arts longer?

One of my best friends, Sifu/Guro Billy Bryant, surrounded himself with training partners and sparring opponents until he was into his 50s. He is a man who would embarass the majority of men reading this blog, I guarantee it. Why can I say so with such confidence? Because I know that most martial arts teachers have not trained or sparred in years, and Billy at 50 years old held a gathering every month at his dojo in Pasadena, MD, where fighters came from all over to spar with him–including men who had beaten him in competition (yes, Billy was still fighting the last I saw him). And you read that right; when a man would beat him, Billy would invite him to his dojo for a rematch. It’s an excellent strategy for growth and excellence. He told me once, that you always keep guys who are superior to you in your company. Some men will just use the opportunity to beat you up regularly, others will want to help you improve–but BOTH men will help you become a better fighter regardless of his intent. Words to live by.

On the other end of the discussion are men like my Si Hing Tehran Brighthapt. He is arguably one of my Sifu’s top fighters. At 6’2″, 250+ lbs, he is both strong and quick, he is both aggressive and tricky, and an encyclopedia of knowledge. Each time Sifu Chin brought visiting masters in to teach, Bright, who does not like forms, would learn and either choose to adopt their lessons into his training program or file it away in the “entertainment purposes only” section of his memory. Like clockwork, regardless of holidays or snow storm, Brighthapt trained 2 to 4 hours every Saturday and Sunday in seclusion, stopping only to teach his hourlong sparring class. I have personally witnessed him pound the bag with wheel punches for 30 minutes with very few breaks while wearing ankle weights and brass rings. He did not like spectators to his training sessions, so one had to be on the other bag or dummy while he trained. He was always good for a quick lesson in Kung Fu fighting techniques, a sparring session, or Chi Sao practice. Being one of the men who could easily lick any man in the room, he always obliged if you asked. Yet despite his insisting on practicing alone–he had two regular sparring partners:  Si Hings Terrance Robinson and Lemuel Talley, both men of similar size and strength. As a child, I was usually told to leave the classroom and close the door behind me for their sparring matches. As a teen, when I was old enough to join them, I knew these sparring sessions to be with heavy contact and nothing to shake a stick at. Sometimes, when other visitors came around, whether or not they were Jow Ga fighters–they would join in those matches. So long periods of solo training would be broken by the occasional sparring match to test skill.

Just keep in mind, that whether you are a student, a young teacher, or a mature Master–we all need to remain in the company of people who will help us grow. Some may only be foes for philosophical debates, some may be fierce rivals, others can be training partners, some can be sparring partners–either superior or inferior. Choose your friends wisely. They all can help you with your journey. And often, you may not realize the impact they’ve had on you until years later, after you’ve reaped the benefits of their company.

There is more to say on this subject, but we will revisit in a future installment. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an issue! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.