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  • Fighters are quick to label traditional stances and footwork as “outdated” and impractical.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.




2 responses

13 02 2016
Terrance Anthony Robinson/JOW HOP KUEN


Very good, you hit the point exactly on the head. Keep it up–Thanks!

13 02 2016

Thanks Terry!

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