How to identify a real, traditional kung fu system?

system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole

What is a TRADITION by definition?

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica

way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time

According to Wikipedia

tradition is a belief or behavior (folk custom) passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past.  the Latin tradere literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. Many traditions have been invented on purpose

Tradition ≠ Custom ≠ Habit

If you would like to start Traditional Kung Fu, and you are serious about it, definitely read this article.

Real tradition is deep, it has a meaning, a purpose. It’s been invented for a reason, to achieve a goal. Everything which is part of the tradition is supposed to serve that goal. For thousands of years societies, different group of people, who had something in common, shared the same views, had the same goal or interest, tried to build up systems, frames which helped to achieve that and pass it through generations… Some of them worked and they are still working, some of them not, or became irrelevant and dissolved in the history of mankind.

If you would like to start Traditional Kung Fu, and you are serious aboNowadays it is popular to use the world “traditional” regardless of its original meaning. So is the case in the martial arts world. But many so called traditions became empty and degraded to be a simple habit of some people, without having any meaning or practicality.

Nowadays it is popular to use the world “traditional” regardless of its original meaning. So is the case in the martial arts world. But many so called tWhen you decide to step on the path of learning Traditional Kung Fu, as we say in Hungary, “you cut off more than one can chew”.

At least you have to be very careful how you choose, because this is a deep rabbit hole you go down into, and you can waste a lot of time, effort, money and at then you can come up with nothing…. You have to put some effort in investigation, before jumping in. If you watched my video about How to find the best martial art for you?, then let’s assume you are at the end having a list and going to check the schools personally. 

Before going further to dig deeper, we have to introduce a few notions to build a common ground and have the same understanding.  So, grab a drink, or whatever pleases you, and let’s get started.

Our starting point is that tradition is a system relying on principles. It is also important to mention that these principles are passed through from generation to generation, and every generation is a proof of a working method by achieving the same goal, having the same results.

What is a SYSTEM?

According to Wikipedia

system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole

What is a PRINCIPLE?

According to Wikipedia

principle is a proposition or value that is a guide for behavior or evaluation. It can be desirably followed, or it can be an inevitable consequence of something, such as the laws observed in nature or the way that a system is constructed. The principles of such a system are understood by its users as the essential characteristics of the system, or reflecting system’s designed purpose, and the effective operation or use of which would be impossible if any one of the principles was to be ignored. A system may be explicitly based on and implemented from a list of principles

It may sound a bit too scientific, but it is definitely important and applicable in case of martial art systems as well. Let’s translate it to our everyday life to have a better understanding.

As mentioned before a real tradition is a system with a specific goal. To achieve that goal they created rules, principles which are cornerstones of that system, drivers and post signs which have two purposes:

  • Lead the way towards the goal
  • They are points of reference to which you can adjust and check yourself, to be sure you are going into the right direction

None of the principles can be ignored, otherwise the goal won’t be achieved. There are many other things built around the principles, some of them are not crucial, but the principles are always those which cannot/should not be ignored. 

As a simple example let’s say the goal is: to travel fast, far in an efficient way and in comfort. So, we build a car, this is our system. What do we need?

  • A strong engine
  • Fuel
  • Wheels/tires
  • Transmission
  • Driving wheel, to control the car
  • Bodywork

These are our “principles”. If any of these are missing, we won’t get anywhere. Not the best example, but I hope you get the point.

In case of martial arts, the goals are:

  • To be strong
  • To be fast
  • To be tough
  • To be effective in fight
  • To be healthy

All martial arts are aiming this. What is the difference then? The way how they get there.Real traditional kung fu systems have principles and methods to achieve all these aforementioned goals.

So, how can you identify a real traditional kung fu system? You have to look for their principles and methods and compare them to the goals.

From here on, I will use examples from the Tung Kong Chow Gar Praying Mantis system, since this is the one I know in details, but many of our principles can be/should be found in other systems. Originally all Hakka Kung Fu systems, like Tung Kong Chow Gar Praying Mantis, shared these principles, you can also find them in Tai Chi and Hsing-I, and these were passed through to other systems as well.

What makes our system unique? I mentioned the general goals of martial arts. Chow Gar has very specific goals:

  • to harness the hidden powers of our body;
  • to unify the whole body in a way that we can use the strength of a given part of the body in a given movement in which otherwise it would not participate.
  • to get conscious control over small areas of the body in order to make them strong;
  • to refine the power chain gained thereby in order to generate a sudden burst of power, what we call the “shock”
  • to develop skills that work in all fighting situations hence to reach freedom of movements 

In our case these goals are supported by principles like:

  • keep your chest in – helps to sink and transfer your powers from you lower body through your back to your arms/hands
  • keep your shoulders forward – again helps to transmit the power and keep your chest in
  • keep your elbow in – helps to use your power efficiently and direct it to serve your fighting effectiveness
  • tuck your buttock in – helps to connect your lower and upper body

These are some of the most important principles you have to keep. As you see ALL OF THEM are leading in the same direction, supporting the same goal!

It is NOT ENOUGH to find principles; you have to SEE THEM APPLIED and kept during the practice. If they ignore them or overlook the importance, they do not follow their tradition, and what they do is empty. So, it is not traditional anymore! 

Something to look for when you do you research is a method of training for every aspect. Since as we said the goals are not general but more specific, the methods must be also specific.

Strength

A real traditional kung fu system has its own power generation method, which is the engine of the system. They have specific exercises to build it up in a special way as Chow Gar Tong Long does, for example, with Chy Sao and Doy Chong, which are exercises executed in pairs. The power generation method of Chow Gar Tong Long is very much enforcing the principles, to strengthen the body in a given structure which makes the system effective. It allows the practitioner to be able to use all the power of his body, connect all the body parts by creating a power chain which multiplies his powers. When someone gets in contact with such a practitioner, it feels him extremely heavy. As a second step, this power must be channeled into the techniques.   

Going to the gym is one way of becoming strong, but it is NOT a method of a traditional art. So, if this is missing, there is no engine in the system. So, it is not traditional anymore!

Stamina

This is the fuel of the system which feeds the engine. This is not simply about running! Running can be one part, but this is more complex with different exercises. The approach is to do SPECIFIC exhausting exercises for a longer time, like the strengthening exercises and other hard Chi Kung exercises, and also have relaxing and breathing or Soft Chi Kung exercises. If they do not have such, it is not traditional anymore! 

Toughness

This is a tricky one 🙂 Because you can become tough in many ways, but a real traditional kung fu aims to be sustainable, which means they have a long-term goal. Ruining the body, damaging health it is not on the agenda. See, every day your neighbor can come over and beat you up with a baseball bat. You will get used to it and become tough. It is a hard way, but definitely will bring some results after a while. Will it bring damage? It surely will. But you will become tough. But if he stops coming over for a year, or maybe for even just a few weeks only, and then suddenly he appears again and beats you up, it will be as bad as it was on your first day. So, you lost your resilience in the meantime. 

Real traditional kung-fu is the opposite. Once you built up your skills, it will never decrease under a certain level, and that level is still high.

Of course, the methods are not pleasant usually, but bearable. 

If you do not see a sustainable method, it is not traditional kung fu anymore!

Health

Even the toughest martial arts have focus on health. Specific exercises are part of the system which are improving health. These can be both hard and soft exercises, which are increasing your energy level, stimulating your nervous system, or calming you down, like breathing, relaxing or stretching exercises. Also, the training method is designed in a way that there is a balance between soft and hard exercises. There is always an optimum mixture of these exercises, when the practitioner can take out the most of every aspect. This of course can depend on one’s physical and mental abilities, but the system provides exercises for every aspect. The practitioner can create trainings which are focusing on any aspect and in many cases the soft exercises can be a complete subsystem and can be practiced as standalone exercises. 

Just as an example, the late Grandmaster Ip Shui died at the age of 92, and even in his last years he was still practicing every day. His son Ip Chee Keung, who is the current gatekeeper grandmaster, is also in great shape over 70, still stronger than any practitioner we know, and he is fast and sharp.

So, if you do not experience this, that is not a traditional kung fu anymore!

Sparring

All traditional kung fu systems have exercises which are mimicking real situations. Those are called drills. And they also practice free sparring in different ways. They also have a specific approach to fighting, like what they protect, what they attack, how they make contact. 

They also do not throw their beginners or unexperienced people in front of lions, so they do not make them practice sparring until they do not have good foundation. If you do not see this, that is not traditional anymore! 

Speed & precision

This is obviously an outcome of all the previously mentioned things. Speed is coming from power, and the optimal usage of the body. Every system has an approach how to develop speed. In Chow Gar Tong Long speed is not only about power. It is also about learning the difference between the power levels, in a simplified approach between relaxed and tense state, and how to make the fastest transition between these states. As I mentioned before, there is always an optimal mixture of the exercises for everyone. Speed and strength are impacting each other, so it must be a balance. Too much strengthening will finally decrease speed, and focusing too much on speed will lead to less power. Also martial art systems are “playing” with speed by defining a “working” distance during fight. Systems like Chow Gar are close combat systems and they are striking from close distance. That also make it look fast, but that requires a good “power engine” in order to be effective, not just fast but powerful. Chow Gar also has a principle which says that do not withdraw your hand before punching, so we strike always from the actual position, which is also more difficult to detect.

Precision is sharpened by practicing forms, which have multipurpose:

  • enforcing principles
  • teaching techniques
  • channeling the power
  • improving precision by focusing

They If you do not see this, that is not a traditional kung fu system anymore.

Summary

This was a lot of information, but let’s summarize it.

A REAL traditional martial art is a complex system, driven by principles. That is not enough however when you are searching for a system for yourself. Who are teaching it, must be aware of this, understand it, practice it, keep it. If they don’t, that is a dying system. It is empty already, and it is just a matter of time that it will disappear or become an empty habit.

If they practice according to the system principles, and they are willing to teach and pass down their knowledge, you found something real and valuable, follow it.

Nowadays it is a popular trend to claim that they are practicing traditional kung fu. But when you go and see them, it is clear that they do not understand what real traditional kung fu is. Different aspects are missing, principles are ignored (if there is any) and overlooked, and they tend to have their own view how to modernize it. One definition of a real tradition is that every generation is a proof of a working method with the same effective results. You cannot modernize something you do not understand. 

If there are no principles, or ignored, there is no system anymore, and it is going elsewhere, not towards the original goals. That is something else….

Here is a list of things you should do when you go and visit a traditional kung fu school:

  1. Ask about their goals
  2. How they want to achieve it. What principles, methods they have.
  3. During the training try to identify these principles, whether they are keeping it or not, especially those who are teaching.
  4. Ask about the different aspects, and how they approach it (like strength, stamina, toughness, health, speed & precision)

That will give you a pretty good picture about them. Of course, there will be things which you will be able to find out or identify only after a while, but it is a good starting point. 

I hope you have now a better picture and it helps you on your way of seeking something valuable.

Keep in shape!

Zoltán  

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