Learn from a master. You’ll live longer.

Hey there, fellow Rubiks Cubers. Cubists? Puzzlers? Kungfubes? I don’t know, I don’t have enough of a fan base to really call anyone anything. Put your own recommendation in the comments below!

As you might be aware, kung fu is something very dear to my heart. I am quite annoyed at the debasement of kung fu and Taijiquan in general to mere “kung fu-do” and “tai chi dance.” On the one hand, it is wonderful that we live in a society where you do not need martial arts merely to walk down the street. On the other hand, these wonderful arts have been thrown so far from their roots that it is cringe-inducing to see people who say they “know kung fu” or “do Tai Chi” performing virtually every little thing wrong.

That was why I was initially apprehensive at attending a call-out for the nascent “Tai Chi Club” here at the university. This post is going to sound rather insulting to them, so I won’t name them here. You can reverse-stalk me to figure out which club this is quite easily, however. (cough)

The call-out began with the typical Powerpoint presentation introducing the president, vice president, and treasurer of the organization, their experience, hopes and dreams for the future, club dues, the regular stuff for any organization.

Then they opened the floor to questions. Being young in “kung fu years,” but seemingly the only audience member with any experience, I opened up with what I thought were some basic questions. These questions might help you out if ever you’re looking to join a martial arts school. Ask them early.

What sort of force training does the school do? 

  • “Force” is a hard word to translate. It’s the gong of gong fu (or the kung of kung fu). It represents things like your internal force, strength, flexibility, agility, speed, mental clarity, all those things that make one a proficient martial artist. In all traditional kung fu, including Taijiquan, the most basic force training exercise is the Horse-Riding Stance. Many kung fu schools complement stance training with flexibility exercises. Generally, the fundamental force training of a school is referred to as their jibengong.
  • Their answer: “What’s force training?” After my explanation, they looked bewildered. The president said, “Oh, um, well, I like to work on lower body strength…” When I asked about stances, they looked confused. Thus the confidence began to die.

How do you deal with injuries or deviations that may result in practice?

  • I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a klutz even when directly supervised by my master (which is about once a year at this rate, since he’s in Florida and I’m in Indiana). Without a master present to give live, hands-on corrections, the probability that beginners and even intermediate students will mess up somehow (habitually putting too much weight on one knee, over-use of certain muscular groups compared to others, etc.) sky-rockets. Any supervised physical activity, be it kung fu or otherwise, should have a trained person on hand. In most kung fu schools, the master and likely the senior students, all have experience with die da (“kung fu medicine”), herbalism, massage, and first aid.
  • Their answer: “Um…well, you see, to participate, you need to sign a waiver.” What?! It took a minute before the president meekly admitted that he had first aid certification. That sort of confidence is not the man I want dealing with injured folks.

Do you do applications of the forms? 

  • There are two major sorts of sets or routines in kung fu (and most martial arts that possess pre-arranged forms): “pattern” sets and “application” sets. The former usually serves as an “encyclopaedia” of a style’s signature movements and provides the student with the opportunity to memorize and execute the movements of the style with picture-perfect form, flow, and force. Some such sets, like the Chen style Taijiquan set “Flowing Water Floating Clouds,” are also performed for the purpose of developing internal force. Most Taijiquan sets are of this category. “Application” sets are often collections of combat sequences where the practitioner is actually applying his sequence of kung fu movements on an imaginary foe (some times these sets are done with a partner to train combat skills). Sets such as Shaolin Wahnam’s “Black Tiger Steals Heart” are application sets.
  • Their answer: “Oh yeah, we do applications. I’ll take a movement out of the set and show it application, and eventually, by doing the 24-set and other sets long enough, the movement gets built into your reflexes and you can use it in self-defense.”
  • Sorry, but that just doesn’t work in my experience. You need to practice the application of the patterns in a flowing situation (such as through application sets and combat sequences such as in Black Tiger Steals Heart) in order to use the movements effectively against a threatening opponent. This answer alone made me quite certain that none of the members have used Taijiquan in their sparring.

How long would it take for a student, learning as you teach them, to be able to use your Taijiquan in friendly sparring or real combat? 

  • Taijiquan is a martial art. It’s one of the best I’ve ever come across. The applications of even the most fundamental movement of Yang family Taijiquan, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, are nothing short of magical for me. The successful application of Taijiquan (and the other so-called “internal” kung fu systems such as Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, though much intermediate and advanced Shaolin is also internal) requires much “force” (see the first question). Practicing Taijiquan as a martial art (quan, which literally means “fist,” is also the marker for “kung fu” or “martial art,” so Taijiquan is “Taiji martial art,” or “Supreme Ultimate martial art”). Practicing it as a martial art develops an agile and powerful body, a complementary mind, quick decision making skills, and a whole host of other things. To not practice it as a martial art is to merely practice it as a gentle dance or calisthenics. Most practitioners nowadays claim they practice it “for health” instead of as a martial art. These practitioners tend to have no martial essence at all.
  • Their answer: “Oh, we only do Tai Chi for health. We don’t want to put someone into a ring or something.” When I repeated my question, with emphasis on the “friendly sparring” aspect, I got the exact same response. Damn it.

What is your curriculum? What do you do in each practice session? 

  • Most kung fu schools that have regular attendance (and not just “get-together” clubs or loose associations of martial artists who happen to practice together once in a while) often have their own beliefs in how to practice kung fu in a given session. Interestingly, in traditional kung fu schools, there is no “warm up” period! Each exercise is a means to an end in and of itself. We don’t stretch, for example, as a warm-up to stance training; stretching is done for flexibility’s sake. We don’t do jump rope, jog in place, or hand-stands to prepare our bodies for practicing sets; we just relax and do the set! There’s no wasted time in practicing great kung fu, which embodies the Zen ideals of “Simple, direct, and effective.” To quote the great Tuco, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
  • Their answer: “I make sure to spend at least thirty minutes warming up before doing the set.”
  • That’s half the allotted time right there! In my own kung fu practice, which averages 45′ to 60′, I spend maybe five minutes on Lifting the Sky, fifteen minutes or so on my force training (which occupies the lion’s share of my session), perhaps five minutes on set practice, and the remainder of the time on application. It’s kung fu all the time, not half of my time spent “preparing” for kung fu.

May I see your kung fu? 

  • It goes without saying that anyone that has the dedication to reach an instructor’s or master’s level is quite passionate about what they do, whatever the art, be it kung fu, dancing, painting, or what-have-you. Many martial artists nowadays, so long as you are respectful and follow a certain protocol, are very eager to show you their passion and the fruits of their labor. When you have some experience of your own in kung fu (even just a little bit like I do), you learn to spot both specific things and general methods of standing and walking that tell you a lot. Some particularly skillful fellows are even able to tell what type of kung fu you do just by the walk you walk across the room! A true master of dance or martial arts is literally “poetry in motion,” even when not formally demonstrating their art. When I asked if I could see the president (the club’s most skillful practitioner) demonstrate the “24” set (also known as the “short form” and other clunky titles, and demonstrated by my sifu in the link), here’s what happened:
  • Their answer: Lots of stammering, blushing, and looking down at their feet until finally the other audience members (three Chinese teenagers) finally cajoled the president (a nineteen or twenty year old young man) into demonstrating the first half of his set. His very first step made me realize just how harmful his practice could be, from the angle of his feet and knees. He also performed the Bow-Arrow stance in exactly the way one is not supposed to (feet about twelve inches apart, front foot pointed straight ahead, back foot perpendicular to that; this places undue tension on the knees and hips, and it exposes the groin to a nasty kick), he had no coordination of the waist, hands, and feet, and overall, it looked as though his “many” years of Taiji dance (for I could not call it a martial art) had been wasted.

After the other audience members left, I mustered up my respect and gave a salute, asking if I could do a session of Pushing Hands with the president so that I could feel his force and skill. The vice president, treasurer, and president himself seemed to age ten years in fright, and the president stammered quite a bit and admitted that he “hadn’t practiced in a while.” What?!

I then asked if it would be all right to demonstrate the “24 set” (Shaolin Wahnam calls it “Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow” nowadays, a name which I find much more beautiful than “24 set”) and they sighed in relief that I didn’t press my request. After nearly giving the treasurer a heart attack when I exploded my force in “Single Whip” and finishing the set, the president asked who my sifu was, and I answered. “Oh, we’ve done some workshops with him!” the president said (which, I guess, makes him my kung fu brother?)

We had a short discussion about our sifu’s philosophies on health and combat application, and that’s when the president dropped his bombshell, asking if I would be an instructor for the club.

What?! 

I’ve only been officially initiated into Shaolin Wahnam for about two years now, and took my first real kung fu course with my Sigung (“Grandmaster”) in Baguazhang back in July. I’ve seen how skillful my seniors are (I met many advanced students and masters of Shaolin Wahnam at the Baguazhang course) and I am nothing compared to them, to say nothing of my own sifu and sigung. And they want a snot-nosed kid like me to instruct for them? Gah…

I have to admit, I’m of two minds about this. A part of me almost wants to see these fellows crash and burn gloriously, because I can tell by the way they perform their Bow-Arrow stance alone that they will aggravate any existing knee or hip problems that new-comers have, and I’m fairly certain that the president himself has no internal force. Another part of me almost wants to accept so that I could try and “reform them from the inside,” but I’ve seen how even “light” Taijiquan force training like proper footwork and waist rotation scares people away. To say nothing of the fact that I am no where near qualified to teach, much less instruct, a subtle art like Taijiquan. Hmm. If nothing else, I might “steal” a few of the more combat-minded folks there and practice with them unofficially as partners.

I think it’ll be more ethical for me as a kung fu student to attend a few sessions, maybe a month or so, and be a good example. Anyone who’s curious as to why I do my stances a little differently or use more flowing energy and force than others can ask if they like. I’ll likely be saying the phrases, “Learn from a real master” and “My master is so-and-so, and his website is such-and-such” so often than you’d think I had a verbal tic.

The beginning end of this two thousand plus word rant sums up what I feel any beginning martial artist should do: Learn from a master. You’ll live longer.

My own sifu has plenty of blog posts about the importance of a master. I recommend reading those as well. In fact, read the rest of his website, it’s good stuff.

I’ll eventually get started on those “kung fu of the week” videos, I promise! I just need some good light, a tripod, and a cat that’s not sick. Then we’ll be good to go!

Off with me, Baguazhang awaits!

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2 thoughts on “Learn from a master. You’ll live longer.

  1. First off, a typo!
    “On the other hand, thee wonderful arts have been thrown so far from their… ” I’m pretty sure you meant “these wonderful arts…”

    Second off, you should send a quick email to your sifu (or a link to this blog), and ask him for permission to teach. It shows respect!

    • Thanks for the typo catch!

      Yeah, I sent an email to Sifu asking for his advice on the matter. I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say. He has twenty plus years of experience in the martial arts world, a bit more than me!

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