With the World Kung Fu (previously called Traditional Wushu) Championships just behind the corner, I would like to reflect just a little bit on what is this traditional in traditional wushu. I say a little bit, because it is an enormous topic, and there are whole academic papers talking about traditional martial arts (search for example for articles of Paul Bowman and Benjamin Judkins), and I don’t want to spend so much space on it here. But I come from a traditional martial arts background, I train and teach kung fu, a style called hung kuen, and previously I had been practicing traditional karate for some 8 years (which is absolutely not contradicting my MMA training, though I am asked about this a lot).
I have two quite funny stories about traditional wushu, or kung fu (yes, the problem with the meaning of the term is more complex). The first one happened when I was doing my field work in China for my PhD research. I visited centres of kung fu as well as modern wushu spots. One of them was a university with wushu major; I am not sure now if it was in Shanghai or Beijing. Anyway, I did my observation there and was very welcomed by the teacher. I watched the students do their jumps, and suddenly a Master’s degree student came to me, asking if she could interview me because she was researching foreigners’ view on wushu. So she did, and at the end she said happily: “You know, I also practice traditional wushu!” I was really delighted and asked her what style of kung fu does she do. “Pu dao,” she said.
Well, if you know a bit about kung fu, you are hitting your desk with your head right now. Or crying. If not, let me explain. “Training kung fu” doesn’t mean training with a bit cooler weapon than your sword-oriented friend. Kung fu consists of many styles, and they all have their own movement patterns, principles and strategies, which also project in their weapons. Therefore, a simple long stick will look differently for style A, and differently for style B. My disappointment was that at a high education centre, where the knowledge should be concentrated, this very basic idea was totally missing.
Ok, dry your tears. One more.
This happened 4 years ago, at previous World that time Traditional Wushu Championships. We had a carpet warm up, which basically means that the teams from around the world come try the competition carpet. It is also a good time to socialize. I was watching one foreign woman, as she was moving a bit like me. I asked her then: “What style do you practice?” “Nanquan,” she said. Nanquan means southern styles. “Ok, great! What kind on nanquan?” “Well, nanquan.”
For competitions, you have basically few options of “groups” or “families” of kung fu styles. Such as northern styles, southern styles, tai ji; sometimes only these, sometimes they are more divided. Now, modern wushu is focused on these groups, but not on any style in particular. It is a new, modern set, these days quite far from the traditional styles. The first modern wushu forms, however, were quite in the middle. Not so flashy as today, but also not belonging to the specific style as its “original” (whatever that means) form/set. So, for people, who wish to perform these first modern wushu forms, that are simply “nanquan” and not, for example “choy lee fut”, their options are very limited. Quite often you can see these forms in the traditional competitions; EWUF (European Wushu Federation) banned them from its European Kung Fu Championships. What I am saying is not that people should not be allowed to compete with them (even though I am not happy to see them in the traditional division, perhaps a special division would be better, as it appears at some events), but what I am saying is that there is a difference between competing with old nanquan, and claiming it is traditional wushu, and studying hung kuen or any other style.
For me, among all the ways of identifying what is traditional and what is not, I highlight the purpose as the most significant. Some authors like to note that traditional means old, which martial arts researcher Paul Bowman challenges here. He is nevertheless not taking away the values of traditional styles, but challenging the concept of "historical" (the paper is worth reading!).
So, what happens if the long-term practitioner of, say, taijiquan, learns that taiji is not actually ancient, unchanging and timeless, but rather more of a nineteenth-century ideological invention, and that the putatively ancient form they practice turns out to be no older than the 1980s? Or what happens if a practitioner of Southern Shaolin learns that there was no Southern Shaolin Temple to be burned to the ground, and hence no few remaining monks to escape, and that all of the characters in the creation narratives and stories deriving from this are made up too? And what happens if the practitioner of Shotokan learns that Shotokan is really a twentieth century practice, or the practitioner of taekwondo learns that taekwondo was conceived, devised, and named in the 1950s and that it derives from no continuous indigenous tradition?
If I should structure the definition of traditional style, I would build it around the purpose, the usage. As we know we have many aspects of training, right? But most of them actually always somehow circle around the purpose. Let’s see: A punch. Well you will not punch with your wrist wittily bent, would you? Of course not, because you understand that the purpose of the punch is to hit someone, and not to break your hand. So even if you will never hit anything or anyone in your life, the purpose guides the standard of the movement. “Here it is right, here it is wrong, and this is why.” It also guides the health aspect, even though with a punch there is not much health going on, but you get the idea: This is good for the body, and this wittily bent angle is really not good for your wrist. That is how it works, in my opinion. Therefore, if I say “I train kung fu/traditional wushu” it is mostly about these biomechanical details and the purpose they serve, no matter if I will be fighting or not. Such as, in the southern styles, the front foot is turned inside in the front stance. And it is not only about the balance, but there are reasons for that, that came from the purpose.
This is how in my mind I draw the line between modern wushu and traditional wushu, when we talk about taolu/forms/sets. To be honest, in the traditional styles, this should never be taught apart, as two independent disciplines. As I just illustrated on the punch or on the stance, they are strongly connected. But then, how do we differentiate between kung fu and other combat disciplines, such as for example kick boxing? This is my opinion, again.
First, kung fu does not offer the narrow focus on fighting only. It is the truth, and anyone who spends time practicing forms and techniques and believes that that makes him a good fighter will learn a lesson the painful way. So yes, if somebody wants to be a good fighter, definitely a much faster approach would be joining a boxing club, for example. But what is kung fu offering extra is this broad focus, which is obviously good and bad at the same time. One can benefit from the breath exercises, from weightlifting and manipulation (=weapons training), self-defence, meditation… in short, this is a long run. But do we need the fighting? YES, as I said before, we do! It is important, no matter if the practitioner fights, but at least, the purpose should guide the standard of the movements.
And second, let me be a bit optimistic here. I see a huge wisdom in kung fu. I fell in love with MMA and see my future in that, but I haven’t left kung fu. So far, for the lack of bridging the gap between application drills and real fighting, I cannot say I am using much of it. As I said, forms don’t make a fighter. But I am working on it, and it was also part of the motivation that brought me to fighting and especially MMA. But I sincerely believe that as the time goes, I will be able to use more patterns from hung kuen, the wise biomechanics that are written in our forms.
I am looking forward to reading your opinion below! Now I am off to practice, the World Kung Fu Championships starts in several days. See you all in China, Emeishan!
I have been practicing martial arts since 1999. It became the reason for moving to Hong Kong and it guided many of my life decisions. I am addicted to hung kuen kung fu and MMA. Further blog posts are sharing of an enthusiast.
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