The key question is: Are we merely seeking a change, or are we really working towards improvement? In this article, let’s put our differences aside and view the entire martial arts scene chasing excellence in the art of fighting, from a third person perspective. Have we left behind some important values in pursuit of change?
We always want to become better than our previous generation. This is true in many areas of society, like sportsmen getting better timings and faster computers with larger screens. However, in martial arts people had a feeling they are not becoming better than their previous generations of practitioners. This is specially true in Kung Fu, and we have many factors contributing to the drop in perceived standard.
After the horse stance phase, it is very common that students will be introduced to very simple and basic techniques, or simple conditioning exercises such as push-ups, jumping or running. If somebody ever does this today, people will probably think that this person has too much time. Now, people commonly look for a quick exploration of fantastic Kung Fu patterns so they can receive a black belt and strike cool poses like Jet Li and Jackie Chan in Kung Fu movies. What’s more, some of them don’t even want to do it themselves; they want their kids to do it. Knowing the real Kung Fu of yesterday, we would know that Kung Fu is not like this, and that these people will be better off dreaming.
After a Kung Fu student of the 70s passes his horse stance training, and eventually years of conditioning and combat techniques training, he will be able to break coconuts and knock fighters out in a few hits. We all know that effort will yield results and that applies to so many other areas of life, but why are some many people not able to do things with such dedication anymore?
Distractions. We spend more time, more mental energy with electronic devices, social media and video games. The television came into the picture earlier, in the 80s. Night life is also much more common now. Now, even men have to use cosmetic products like ladies. It would be unheard of in our fathers’ times.
Having so many forms of entertainment simply dilutes our appreciation on the Chinese art of fighting. Just the internet alone has so many thousand times more information than what our parents had. People’s minds are going all over the place, and the ability to focus on one thought become weaker. People may also be losing the ability to see things from a wider perspective, from other paradigms, because that means you have to put down what you are doing/thinking and take a step back. When was the last time we ever stopped? Stopped and open the eyes of our soul, even our emotions?
Probably in the 80s people had more positive and realistic influence from the media! Those who have watched movies of the 70s and 80s can remember Gordon Liu running over logs in a pond, or Fu Sheng stabbing beans in a wok with his hands. Even Jackie Chan dragged a log with his sifu standing on top of it. Come to think of it I don’t remember characters of 90s movies doing much of these. Many protagonists seem to be able to dominate hordes of villains by default!
Videos on social media can also be a strong influence. Availability of videos can be a good thing, we get more exposure to different schools of Kung Fu be it the same style or other styles. More often than not it becomes a major distraction that creates distorted perceptions. Many people don’t even base their knowledge primarily on the teacher’s teachings!
Some people may also base their perceptions on forums, friends and comments. Not to mention the existence of cyber bullying. We encourage people to focus their emotions on cyber friendships, where friends from different parts of the world can eventually meet up in person.
While it is okay to open up and ‘know more’, people could’ve actually been neglecting their most reliable source of martial arts experience, which is experiencing firsthand the martial art in person!
The good thing is that Kung Fu now has newly added dimensions of fun to it. The not-so-good thing is that some are not appreciating that the original Kung Fu can be fun and meaningful too; core aspects such as progressive physical and mental improvement for the individual. This brings us back to the principle of staying centered on your personal Kung Fu experience. Being centered and having a clear direction is the key to self-improvement.
Kung Fu now compared to Kung Fu then also experienced a big shift away from real combat. It is not true that Kung Fu has completely lost all practitioners who encounters real combat, or practitioners whose direction in Kung Fu is real combat. People may increasingly feel that physical security is not a big problem in our country.
On the other hand, they are also concerned with the legal consequences if they are to engage in personal defense in the event their personal safety is being compromised by aggressive individuals or criminals. Legal restriction is a very big factor for consideration for not just Kung Fu, but any martial art in countries that control them.
Our masters tell us that cross style sparring happens frequently in the public during the time they were teenagers or young adults. Cross style exchanges can range from organized sparring competitions (Lei Tai) or merely individuals or groups fighting on the streets. In today’s legal terms we call that rioting. For your information, you can get into jail and get caned for that.
It is true that combat experience will give us much insight on how to improve ourselves. The experience will reflect our weaknesses, along with appreciation and caution for our opponents’ strengths. Especially in the case one meet hands with experts of other styles. It might not be a pleasant experience physically or emotionally, but it is sure to propel you to a higher level as a Kung Fu practitioner.
Cross style sparring has certain risks of hurting relationships and practitioners becoming distracted from their path of training. Some of the risks are still worth it, but it is a wiser choice to first practice sparring and pressure testing among peers in the same school. Unfortunately, this also means that we won’t be able to enjoy the same benefits of our teachers or seniors.
Even pressure testing is becoming an issue in Kung Fu training as some parents of students would not bear to let their children suffer injuries from sparring. Some parents could also interfere with certain learning experiences in other areas of life to prevent their child from suffering emotional setbacks. Our take on this issue is that a practitioner should always start sparring lightly before they become comfortable with going faster and harder.
Many parents hope their children can become capable of protecting themselves after Kung Fu training. Thus we also want their consent for us to let them do some simulation in the form of pressure testing and sparring to facilitate that. If a parent is not willing to let the child engage in any combat related activities in his or her Kung Fu training at all, then it is not realistic for them to desire self-defense skill development in the child. It might be better for these parents to enroll their children in dance or music classes instead.
Good parenthood is not one of total command and control. If a child is to enroll in Kung Fu training, it has to be the child’s personal decision and responsibility. Parents can still mentor their child on certain matters. It is good if the parent have personal experience of Kung Fu learning too. Children will be greatly inspired if parents can lead by example, to accompany them in learning.
This is especially untrue, because those youngsters eventually become the old teachers parents send their children to learn performance Wushu from. The public interpretation of Wushu has changed. Wu De used to be the state of mercy and respect for the opponent. It used to encompass values like courage and honesty. Now, it is thought that anyone who happens to be involved in fighting has no Wu De; that Kung Fu practitioners learn Kung Fu to not fight at all. This especially makes no sense; will you believe that someone can be a taxi driver if he has not driven a car in his life before?
In actual fact, there’s no way a layman or someone who likes to talk about martial arts can understand what is Wu De. Wu De is not something you can learn from a book or passed down orally from an old master. Wu De is the wisdom that is developed from experiencing conflicts.
Back to the enrolment of students for Kung Fu schools of the old Singapore. It is not just the students who will test the schools, the schools will also test the students to determine if their attitudes and physical ability is suitable for them to undertake the training the school does. These tests may be anything from the gruelling 3 – 6 month period of horse stance training, to sparring with a senior. Students who were not convinced that stance training helps to develop combat skills were also welcomed to prove their point by sparring with their senior.
People may think that the Kung Fu schools of the past were aggressive and unreasonable, but the people have to consider the fact that these schools really trained people to protect themselves and their loved ones in times of unrest. The Kung Fu schools which imposed strict rules of conduct on their senior students had reformed many who were once young hooligans. That is why Kung Fu is known for nurturing character in its students.
Kung Fu schools of the past also honoured their founders by upholding the standard of Kung Fu in their generation, hence the trials. In fact, there are many people now in their 50s and 60s who failed the trials of the past. It takes more than a love for fantasy Wuxia novels to be accepted into Kung Fu schools when they were younger. These days many of these people have re-emerged to take up Wushu classes; now that there are no more horse stance trials of sincerity or an emphasis on sparring. We still strongly encourage them to try to honor the standards set by our previous generations.
To sum it up, the selection process of the past’s Kung Fu schools is a test of character. People are either mentally strong enough to make it through, or they grow tougher to eventually pass the selection stage. Kung Fu teachers can better teach students who have sorted out their resolve to learn.
When making comparisons with Kung Fu practitioners of the past, we don’t just look at our sifus. Some of our fathers are not martial artists, but they seem to have a tougher and stouter frame than us. Many tall guys may find that their fathers have thicker wrists, waists, necks and fingers than them, despite being shorter than their sons. These are functional features that martial artists actually aim to develop. Those fathers are cooks, deliverymen and maybe technicians. They may not have done sports in school or may not have nutrition as rich as ours.
We feel that this may have something to do with the lifestyle changes in our generation. Our parents engage in more hands on work compared to the current generation of young workers. They carry heavy things a lot, and many had to operate cumbersome machines. Most graduates these days work in desk jobs, and even if you are an engineer or mechanic, most processes are automated today.
It may not be true that workers in the last century have shorter working hours, but they do spend more time in sports recreation. Many alumni coaches of school CCA clubs will also tell you that they cannot match up to the standards of their senior batches. Senior reservists will also tell their younger national service counterparts how hard military training was back then.
At times, these can be depressing to hear. We want to see this is positive light. That means we have a goal to work towards, that is the standards set by our predecessors. Don’t even think of being better than them or doing things too differently from them, become just as good first.
Now that we’ve thought about sports and CCAs in school, did Chinese people even have games like basketball and tennis before the 20th century? From the historical records, in Ming and Qing dynasties, Kung Fu was widespread among the commoners, and it made up most of the non-occupational exercise that people did in those days. Of course, there were some recreational activities such as kicking ball, shuttlecock, swimming, hiking and boating.
In the ancient days that date back more than a thousand years, Kung Fu was mostly taught among the warrior class, aristocracy and royalty. There were only a small amount of commoner pugilists roaming the country. Commoners generally suffer from ill health due to lack of holistic exercise. Doctors would recommend qigong exercises for commoners to improve their immunity against illnesses and degeneration.
Despite that, the mindsets of people were simple. If they were farmers or labourers they will exert a huge amount of physical effort during their work and that was all they needed. Despite shorter life expectancies, people were physically tougher and more resistant to minor illnesses.
The lifestyle shift had a huge part to play in the declining standards of Kung Fu. While most young graduates end up in office jobs, our previous generations were frequently physical labourers or worked in jobs that require lots of hands on work. Perhaps that is why most of our fathers have thicker wrists, fingers, waist musculature and even calves. Many in our generation may work out in the gym but the well defined six packs and biceps does not help much in physical tasks like that the men of the past did.
Recently the train breakdowns and the waiting time for buses have been causing a big hoo-hah on the net. 40 years back there would be no trains, only walking from village to village, and the non air-conditioned diesel train that goes to Malaysia and Thailand. Compared to that time, many people now will complain if they have to walk for more than half a kilometer.
From a healthcare point of view, walking is very important to the blood circulation and muscle activation of the lower body. Muscles of the lower body are the first to degenerate in the aging process. Muscle inactivity has a direct relation to metabolism and mental sharpness.
Although there have been many new perceived standards of Wushu, we still hope that anyone who decides to pick up Kung Fu do not neglect meeting the real standards. The first step to start with is to resume horse stance training. You do this to know deep in your heart that you are doing real Kung Fu. Horse stance training will truly build you up to perform as a Kung Fu practitioner; in fact any form of basic conditioning will.
In the present, many teachers may be lenient with their students. It is still a respectful gesture if you do the basics on your own. You also honour the Kung Fu style that you are learning by taking pride in your training process. People who are sincere in their recreational pursuits, especially in Kung Fu, will reflect their sincerity in other aspects of their lives.
It is worthwhile to think if what you are doing is quality use of time. Do you want to explore many hobbies and activities and become good at none, or even worse, enjoying none?
Have people become too distracted or too lazy to reap any real benefits of learning Kung Fu? Comparing the present with the past will allow you to assess your present progress. Only when the present is better than the past, will you be on track to a better future.
We Singapore Kung Fu encourage our participants to embrace the old school practices. These are the real practices of the Kung Fu that was handed down to our generation. While we fulfill our Wuxia dream, we have to be sure that we enjoy the real benefits of Chinese Kung Fu.