A manifesto for modern kung fu

30 May


Chinese martial arts, often referred to as simply “kung fu,” first emerged as we now know it (i.e. as systems of unarmed combat) in the Ming Dynasty. It flourished in the Ming, but faced challenges in the Qing Dynasty such as its associations with the “jiang hu” (江湖; lit. “rivers and lakes”), with the Taiping Rebellion and with the Boxer Uprising. It was often misappropriated by con men, and by those seeking to use it to recruit ignorant peasants for their political or criminal activities. The New Culture Movement rejected it as part of the “old culture” that had ruined China. The May 4th Movement sought to revive it for military reasons but only under strict government controls. Even the so called heroes of modern kung fu, such as the Jing Wu (精武), often sought to obscure it’s true history and change it’s directions and meaning.


The modern martial artist inherited a tradition full of contradictions and neither intact in its original form nor completely transformed to a modern. So called instructors with inadequate training and all to frequently questionable motives have sold unsuspecting students false pictures and empty systems. We stand at a cross roads. Can we make Chinese martial arts functional and relevant to modern society, or is it destined to failure and extinction?


Authentic Chinese martial arts training is rigorous and indeed excellent for health. All the traditional stories of sick people finding cures in the practice of martial arts indeed have merit. However, for far too long “health” has been used as an excuse to avoid the issue of “fighting.” Chinese martial arts are not gymnastics, they are not yoga, they are not even Qi-Gong, they are “Wu Gong,” i.e. FIGHTING ARTS. To either ignore or obscure this is folly.


In addition, in seeking health and fitness, we need not limit ourselves to just traditional methods. The reality is our ancestors sought to be the best they could be, without limit. We should not limit ourselves either. We should embrace modern exercise science, anatomy and performance science and incorporate it.

This idea of Chinese martial arts as spiritual practice has been detrimental in many ways. Martial arts is not religion, and furthermore, those practicing martial arts today either are of many religions or may chose to have no religion at all. Even more detrimental to our martial arts has been that “spiritual” has led to belief in superstitious nonsense and carnival tricks.


Martial arts is not “spirital,” but it can be a way of life. It can be physical education. It can be a social movement. But do not confuse it with superstitious nonsense and carnival tricks.


Ti Da Shuai Na
The basic offensive movements of Chinese martial arts at Ti and Da; kicks, sweeps, knees, punches, palms, elbows and forearms. Too many minds have been clouded with myths and legends, and with superstition. These basics are in fact “kickboxing.” What else do we call kicking and striking? Attempting to say Chinese martial arts is not “just kickboxing” and using the term in the pejorative sense has blinded the basic student to the reality of combat and is one of the reasons why Chinese martial arts is no longer functional for so many.


Many Chinese martial arts movements have had their meaning clouded or simply lost. In traditional forms, some movements are for combat. Others are for conditioning. With the long association with the Jiang hu, some are simply for entertainment or were meant to obscure real applications. Today many people don’t know which techniques are for what, and they have lost their application.

Many movements were never meant to be strikes or blocks; they are instead
– hand fighting
– tie ups
– standing locks
– trips
– takedowns
– throws


The vast majority of Chinese martial arts students have lost these skills. They have lost the methods of realistic practice, as General Qi warned against during the Ming Dynasty! We have forgotten that the practical is often not pretty, and we have chased the flowery.


We can still see the remnants of practical drilling; chi sau, rou shou, tui shou, shuai jiao. But in far too many places they have been watered down and altered. We see “point sparring” without contact instead of practical sparring. We have avoided the harsh reality, that never having contact does not prepare us for real combat.

Did we learn nothing from the Lei Tai tournaments of the 1920’s and 1930’s, where so called “masters” were either defeated easily or afraid to compete at all, while those who fought and won all had auxiliary methods of combat training? Many did not care where those methods came from, Japanese Judo and Western Boxing being strong influences in the early 20th century in China.

view the ocean

Practical sparring requires use of modern equipment. I see people all the time resist using gloves. You can not really spar with contact without gloves. When you spar without gloves people tend to not really throw their strikes. I should also add, the Chinese themselves were NEVER resistant to training with gloves. After the horrible debacle of the so called “fight” between Wu Kung Yi (Wu style Taiji) and Chan Hak Fu (Pak Hok Pai), BOTH schools adopted sparring with gloves. And both schools subsequently produced some good fighters.


We cling to “tradition” when we don’t even understand real tradition. While I advocate embracing some modern methods, in other ways my suggestions here are rather a return to an older, undiluted time. There was a time when we trained harder, we had less misconceptions, and we fought…..


3 Responses to “A manifesto for modern kung fu”

  1. tony dear June 3, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    …very good article, it reminds me of the combatives philosophy….. martial arts have become something you do WITH someone, whereas the original intent was to do something TO someone…. worth thinking about.

  2. Jason Wang August 2, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    Very good article. I do not know why more people read these articles and avoid schools that only train fir oerformance. Public perception of Kung Fu must change.


  1. A manifesto for modern kung fu | nysanda - May 30, 2014

    […] A manifesto for modern kung fu. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: