SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
NOVEMBER 1998 PART 1
There has been much debate over the value of choreographed forms in martial arts training. What is your opinion on the merits and weak points of each side of the argument?
— Dylan, Holland
To me, the formless and form aspects of kungfu are complimentary, the yin and yang of harmony. Hence, it is as irrelevant to debate whether the formless or the form aspect of kungfu is better, as it is irrelevant to argue whether the function or the structure of his heart is more important for a person. It is irrelevant because one depends on the other.
However, this does not necessarily means one cannot profitably examine the merits and weak points of practicing martial arts with or without practicing sets of forms. If you do away with forms (used here and subsequently to mean kungfu sets or katas), such as in boxing, wrestling and judo, you may apply what you have learnt immediately or within a short time. The training is direct and realistic, giving the student ample opportunities not only in combat application but also in developing fighting qualities like judgement, spacing, gut and temperament. These are its merits.
Its weak points are that injuries are quite common, and the partitioners do not have elegant pre-arranged sets of patterns for demonstrations. The more serious weakness, although it may not be so obvious, is that partitioners of such arts without form training, are limited in their development to their immediate experience. The techniques they learn are from their teachers or from observing other fighters or from their own invention; they do not have the inheritance of a legacy passed on to them from generations of past masters. This seriously limits not only the development of individual partitioners but also their arts in general.
This transmission of a legacy is probably the strongest point of arts with forms. When a student practices a kungfu set, for example, he is learning not his or his teacher's or comtemporaries' inventions, but a crystalization of fighting techniques developed by masters of many generations.
This explains why, for example, although boxing might have existed hundreds of years ago, the techniques used by a modern boxer are not much different from those used by his early forefathers; but a kungfu student (if he practices real kungfu) may use techniques so sophisticated that no one can possibly invent them from scratch. Set practice not only has accumulated and developed techniques, but also teaches students many useful skills like how to regulate their breathing and to combine various techniques in some meaningful manner.
One weakness of set prqctice is that it takes time. In boxing or judo, almost as soon as you learn a technique, you can use it. In kungfu (including Taijiquan) after you have learnt a technique, you have to learn and practice using it. The usual problem with many students is that they may learn a technique, but they do not know and never practice how to use it. The most serious weakness is that many students as well as instructors today regard set practice as the whole of kungfu, forgetting that it is only a part.
Comparatively the sets or katas in karate and taekwondo are not as elaborate or majestic looking as those in kungfu, and karate and taekwondo students still spend considerable time for sparring. Hence, although set practice is also found in karate and taekwondo, it is in kungfu, especially in Taijiquan, that these sets which are originally mean to provide the kungfu students with effective techniques for fighting, have degenerated into merely demonstrative forms.
Well you didn't show as much respect as you said I did. How can a great master like you, tell me what a disrespectful person I am when you don't even know me. If you want to keep the secrets of the art to yourself than do so. You didn't have to insult me by saying I am disrespectful and all of the other nonsense. The reason I didn't put capital I on I is because I had to go some place and I didn't have time to type the words perfect. Plus you also insult my ability to type because that is the way I type. Don't you ever criticize the way I write. So what if my English is not good. Who cares! As long as I have the heart to write to you.
One other things, you don't have to need money so bad. It is not my fault that I have money or not. I don't have money because we aren't that rich. So sorry for not giving you fees. I am poor are you happy now!!!!!!!!!! All I ever wanted was to learn the art, and not get into quarrrels with other people. I am not trying to be rude, but I am just mad about how you criticize the way I type. Also I am not dumb, I know it is hard practicing this art. When did I even said it was easy? I never did said it was easy. So thanks for your rude letter.
— A dumb kid (as you think I am), USA
It is a pity that you are offended so easily, and a greater pity that you mistook a genuine desire to help you, for an insult.
You wanted to learn a great art, and you also mentioned that not many replied to your letters. Accordingly I gave you what I thought was probably my best advice in your situation, i.e. if you wanted any help from anybody, you must first of all show that you cared for the help and respected the person who was going to give you the help. To substantiate this advice, I pointed out that the causal way you wrote the letter did not demonstrate this care and respect. The care you put into writing a letter may not be very significant by itself, but if you allow this careless attitude to become habitual it will be significant in your life.
A Shaolin master does not merely teach kungfu; more importantly he teaches his students how to lead rewarding lives. I sincerely believe that if you heal this advice, you will find your life more rewarding. I never said you were disrespectful, on the contrary I complimented you for using my full name prefixed with “Mr”. Many e-mails came to me with no names for the recipient and/or the sender. It is also a good sign that in your second letter you changed “Mr” to “Sifu” as I suggested.
It is never a sin to be poor, but it is a sin, to yourself as well as your parents, if knowing yourself to be poor you do nothing to improve yourself. You live in the richest country in the world. Although there may still be many things that are not ideal in the U.S., you have ample opportunities to be rich, monetarily or otherwise, but of course, and this is very important, you must acquire your richness in an honest and honorable way.
Based on your reply to Nguyen from US in October's first series of Questions and Answers, may I resubmit my questions which I had earlier sent? In this letter, I have re-checked my English and spelling as best as I can. Presuming that you would be receiving many letters, I have kept the text below short for easier reading.
I have read about “Jing” mentioned in a few martial arts articles but do not understand what it means (it does not seem to mean “essence” in the qigong sense). Could you tell us what Jing is, how it is related to chi, force or strength, and how it is used in combat?
— Michael, Malaysia
It is thoughtful of you and is much appreciated.
In chi kung and martial art context, “jing” usually means “essence”, but as the Chinese language is concise and is a mono-syallbic language, “jing” may sometimes have different connotations. Jing, qi (chi) and shen are the three elements of any being, human or otherwise. Jing refers to the finest essence of the being's form. In modern terms, jing refers to sub-atomic particles. Qi is energy, and shen is mind or consciousness.
Jing and chi are interchangeable. In our body, for example, jing is constantly changing into chi and vice versa. Modern physicists would be surprised at how many centuries earlier Chinese masters already knew about the relativity of matter and energy. The transformation of the food you have eaten into force or strength for your work is an example of jing changing into chi. The transforation of cosmic energy taken in through breathing into healthy cells to repair wear and tear inside your body is an example of chi changing into jing.
There is another Chinese word often used in martial arts that is also transcribed as “jing”, and it is probably this word that you mean. Here, jing means internal force, and is differentiated from chi in that jing is “harder” whereas chi as flowing energy is soft. Jing needs chi to manifest it. In other words, in order to have internal force, one must have a good supply of vital energy.
The term “fa jing” is often used in kungfu, and it means “manifesting or sending out internal force”. In Shaolin Kungfu, there is a saying as follows: internal force is manifested from the palm, vital energy is emitted from the abdominal energy field. This means that during combat, when a master wants to strike an opponent using internal force, he does not have to drive his fist from a distance into the opponent; he merely places his palm on the opponent, and with an exertion of his abdominal energy field, he can transmit internal force from his palm into the opponent to hurt the latter seriously.
Taijiquan masters differentiate between da-jing and fang-jing, or hit-force and release-force. When a master uses release-force on an opponent, the opponent is thrown many feet away but is usually not hurt badly. If the master uses hit-force, the opponent may remain on the same spot but is seriously injured.
I once asked my master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, the difference between jing and li, or internal force and physical strength. He gave me a descriptive explanation. Jing, he said, is alive and can be moved about to any part of the body or outside the body. Li is “dead” and is localized to a particular body spot. Hence, when you take up body building or weight lifting, you develop dead-strength; when you practice chi kung, you develop living-force.
Do martial arts practictioners still challenge each other like in the old days? Did you face challenges from rival schools or tests from friendly schools?
Happily, challenges like those of the old days are uncommon nowadays. I happen to be caught in the transition period between real kungfu masters of the old days and kungfu dancers of modern times. My own kungfu masters were real fighters. For example, my first kungfu master, Sifu Lai Chin Wah, earned his enviable title “Uncle Rghteousness” not just through talks about righteousness but through actual fighting to right wrongs.
I was lucky not to have many challenges, and managed to handle satisfactorily the few that came. My most unforgetable encounter was when many martial art organizations of a state federation combined together to challenge me and my school to prove distant chi transmission. If not for the timely and wise intervention of my master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, I might have headed towards an irreversible confrontation. Later, when the heat of the challenge had cooled down, a national newspaper conducted a month long public experiement on distant chi transmission, and fortunately I was able to prove that it is a reality.
There were also some friendly tests, which were more pleasant and actually reasonable. If an organisation, for example, has spent thousands of dollars to invite a master to teach kungfu, it is reasonable for them to ensure that what he teaches is not gymnastics or dance. Once, for example, I was invited to teach a kungfu school with many international champions. After sparring with their champions, they were convinced of the effectiveness of Shaolin Kungfu and happily learned from me.
According to my reading of your writings, you do not teach Hoong Ka, Wuzu or Wing Choon, styles which you are adept in addition to Shaolin. Could you tell us why?
Hoong Ka is Southern Shaolin. Much of the Shaolin Kungfu I teach is the Hoong Ka Kungfu I learned from Uncle Righteousness and Sifu Ho Fatt Nam. I teach Wing Choon Kungfu to one or two students once in a long while, and usually because they specially requested it. I prefer teaching Shaolin to teaching Wing Choon because I am better at Shaolin, and I believe a good teacher should give his best to his studnets.
Although my Wuzu master is the Wuzu patriarch, Sifu Chee Kim Toong, who surprised the world when he offered his head to be chopped by a karate blackbelt, I did not learn enough of Wuzu to feel competent to teach it.
I am writing in response to your comments on whether Shaolin Kung-Fu could be used for combat. Specifically, I am referring to the answer you gave to a Kung-Fu practitioner, Lee from Singapore. His question to you was concerning what he called the “true essence of martial arts.” Judging from his question, I believe he meant “true essence” as the ultimate goal of Kung-Fu practice: Is it to eventually reach combat mastery or something else? Your answer had a few valid as well as invalid points, in my opinion of course.
— Jllchen, USA
What true essence of kungfu is, depends on numerous variables, including who ask the question and who answer it. Many people would regard the true essence of kungfu to be combat efficiency. Those who practice only kungfu forms may disagree, and argue that fighting is unimportant and the true essence is health. “We practice kungfu for health” has become a fashionable expression. Judges in modern wushu competitions may say that the true essence is beautiful demonstration, as it is what they judge when awarding points to winners.
What constitutes the true essence of a particualr style of kungfu depends on what that style aims at, and the answer is usually conditioned by the knowledge of the persons who ask and who answer. If you ask a Wing Choon master, for example, he may answer that it is striking the opponent in the shortest, fastest way. A Taijiquan master may answer internal force. A Shaolin master may say it is the extensive range of techniques. But the grestest masters may say that the true essence is spiritual fulfilment.
You have made very clear that your aim and goal in Kung-Fu practice is to enhance one's health as well as that of others. I believe this is a very important goal and I am glad that you are promoting the health aspects of kung-fu.
You are grossly mistaken. I have alsways believed that the bottom-line of kungfu is combat efficiency. If someone cannot defend himself, he cannot rightly call what he practices as kungfu. Health is a pre-requisite or a bonus. In other words, you have to be healthy first before you even think of practicing kungfu, or else you can easily harm yourself.
The radiant health of kungfu masters is a bonus; they do not aim for health in their training, they almost always aim for combat efficiency. In other words, when a Taijiquan master trains the Three Circles Stance, or a Shaolin master trains the Cosmic Palm for years, he does so not for health reasons but for enhancing his fighting ability. If your priority is health, you should practice chi kung instead of kungfu.
However, I find your other comments on the combat aspects of kung-fu rather contradictory. For instance, you mentioned that Kung-Fu is a very effective combat art, and you wanted to train “a team of genuine kungfu fighters who can show the world that kungfu can be used for fighting.” Then, after saying this, you said that it doesn't matter if they lose, as long as they fought “honorably” and used kungfu techniques.
I find your logic fundamentally flawed. You wanted to train a group of “genuine” kungfu fighters and they may lose because they are genuine kungfu practitioners! It seems to me that you are trying to make comments to hide the fact that your fighting applications may not necessarily work at all in a real combat situation. A real “genuine” kung-fu practitioner knows that his kung-fu works and do not have to make comments such as yours. If a kung-fu works, it works; it it doesn't, it doesn't. The only thing in between is the person's individual talent. If the kungfu doesn't work, the fighter has to bail himself out.
There is nothing illogical about the statement that it doesn't matter if kungfu students lose, as long as they fought “honorably” and used kungfu techniques. Personally I find it disgraceful for kungfu “masters” to employ Taekwondo or Kickboxing exponents in competitions, and after they have won, claim them as their kungfu students. It is similarly disgraceful if kungfu students using genuine kungfu techniques won with dishonest means.
It is also disgraceful if after losing, they spit on the judges or blame the competition rules. If my student loses a match but has fought courageously using the kungfu techniques he has learnt, and despite losing he remains calm and cheerful, I shall be very proud of him. But even if he wins, if he disdainfully ridicules his opponent or causes unnecessary injury, he will be a disgrace to my Shaolin teaching.
There is no doubt at all that kungfu is effective for fighting, but that does not mean if you practice kungfu you will necessarily be the best fighter. Even if the art is excellent, if you do not train well you will be a poor fighter. Or even if you are a very good fighter, you may still lose to a better one. Even real kungfu masters may lose -- to other kungfu masters or better masters of other martial arts. There is a saying in kungfu culture as follows: when you have climbed a high mountain, don't think it is the highest mountain, there may be another mountain higher than this one; when you are a good fighter, don't imagine you are the best fighter, there may be another fighter better than you.
Second, I find your last comments about Korean and Japanese martial arts philosophy insulting to Chinese Kung-Fu. The true martial spirit is to prove your Kung-Fu works against anyone. If your kungfu works, then it will save your life and that of others. You don't have to worry about running away. A kungfu man is not a coward, because he knows his kungfu works.
It is evident that you have little exposure to the kungfu philosophy as taught by real masters or recorded in kungfu classics. Try asking kungfu masters when faced with situations when they know the odds are overwhelmingly against them, whether they will fight on and die, or escape and live. Great warriors like Guan Yun Zhang, who is now worshipped as the God of Rightousnes, and Heng Yi, the fearless lord of Chu, ran with their armies when they realized further fighting would be sucidial, not because they were coward but because they valued their own and their soldiers' lives.
You have every right to think that running away from a hopeless fight is cowardly, and there may be others who share the same opinion with you. In the same vein, you would probably think not wanting to get into a fight more cowardly. My opinion is different. I consider fighting to death as both silly and barbaric. It is even better not to get into a fight in the first place. I recall an invaluable advice I learned when I was a boy, and I would like to share it with you: True courage lies not in never falling, but in rising after every fall.
I do not know about the true martial spirit in other martial arts, but I am sure that in Shaolin Kungfu it is not to prove your kungfu against anyone. A kungfu man is certainly not a coward, but he is not so vain to think himself as invincible. Hence in every genuine kungfu move, there is always a provision for running away.
When a kungfu exponent moves into his opponent to attack, for example, he does not simply rush in; he moves in swiftly when he knows he is in a favourable position, and he always makes allowance for retreat. If he kicks, he always covers his groin to avoid possible counter-attack at his exposed organ, and he always maintain good balance so that he can retreat when necessary. If he uses one hand to attack an opponent's face, he always covers his middle body with his other hand, and positions his legs so that his vital organs are not exposed. This is not being cowardly; it is being wise.
Also, I have seen your Shaolin Application pages and the pictures, and I have to say that they may not work in a real fight because of your distancing and defence techniques. Maybe we can talk more about this next time. I am looking forward to hearing from you. Please do not take this email as a disrespectful message. I am merely voicing my opinion to a worldly respected Sifu.
Correct spacing and timing happen to be factors that we place much attention to in our training. We not only ensure that we place ourselves at the best distance from our opponents, we also make sure our feet positions do not give our opponents an advantage to exploit, and our angling gives ourselves the best possible advantage.
The Shaolin applications are not my defence techniques in the sense that I invented them; they are the crystalization of countless masters who have evolved these techniques through actual fighting. They may not work for you and those who think that fighting can only consist of a free exchange of straight-forward kicks and blows, but they have actually worked for many people, including my masters, myself and my students, in real fights as well as sparring competitions.