Your kung fu demo doesn’t look like fighting, and I don’t care

Very rarely does a kung fu demo look like real fighting, but so what?


Chinese martial arts have a strong connection to what we (by which I mean people in Europe and America) would call ‘theatre’. All kung fu styles have some sort of performance element built into them. Historically a lot of kung fu styles were practiced by Chinese Opera performers, or have links to religious rituals, which became hidden inside Kung Fu styles. I’ve written about this before with respect to Tai Chi and its strange preoccupation with the Taoist Chang Sang Feng.

From the modern view point it’s easy to laugh at this idea, sine we tend to think that martial arts have one purpose – for kicking butt! But I think it’s valid to ask why do almost all Chinese Martial Arts contain so many solo forms if they’re not meant to be performed and appreciated as a performance? Compare it to something like Brazilian JiuJitsu or Wrestling – these arts don’t contain any solo kata or forms anymore, because they’re really just focussed on fighting techniques and conditioning. Sure, forms build up stamina, which is conditioning, and train techniques, and the flow of movements, but a lot of this could easily be done more effectively by repeating individual techniques over and over. Instead, in Chinese Marital Arts, they get put together into a (often highly stylised) form.

It’s no surprise to me that the kung fu film industry is so big, and has also crossed over into Western cinema, first with Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon, and recently with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. It’s because kung fu has always been designed to be performed partly as theatre, making cinema its natural medium.


Kung Fu teachers back in the 1970s when kung fu started to take-off were well aware of this ‘for show’ element to the arts, and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about.  Some techniques were ‘good for show’ and some were ‘good for real use’, and your teacher knew the difference. Of course these days we’re in the era of the YouTube generation, so when a Kung Fu demonstration, with its flashy techniques done against minimal resistance, crops up for discussion there’s an immediate cry of ‘foul!’.

Take this video of a Choy Lee Fut demonstration, which got posted on RSF recently:

The teacher moves well, and clearly has a grasp of using the big swinging techniques of Choy Lee Fut, and demonstrates them with speed and efficiency, which is presumably the point of the demo, but it was instantly greeted with cries of “That was awful”, and “I liked how the camera shakes at some points. Real dragonball effect. Only one question …. why is it none of the “attackers” have their hands covering their heads? Ok one more. Why can they throw 2+ punches or kicks like he does?”

Because of the huge interest in MMA, which is probably as close to actual fighting for entertainment as we can get and still be relatively safe for the participants, everybody has at least some idea of what a fight actually looks like, so we’ve now got people looking at Kung Fu demonstrations questioning why it looks nothing like a fight. This is a good thing, because I get the impression that back in the 1970s and 1980s people thought this was what real fighting should look like. Then the UFC came along in 1993 with a healthy dose of reality that blew everybody’s perceptions out of the water. Sure there’s the usual ‘but that’s not the reality of the street’ and ‘but what about knives?’ objections, but I think they’re missing the point. Fighting looks like fighting. It’s scrappy and messy, and always will be.

These days I’m finding it harder to care that the polished, perfect kung fu demos we’re used to seeing don’t look like real fighting, and I’m just happier to accept them for what they are. Kung fu has evolved over many generations into an art that contains performance related elements, and that’s just the way it is. I’d rather just enjoy the performance and not worry about it being too ‘real’, because that’s what you’re meant to do.

I’m writing this on International Women’s day, so I’m going to end this post with a clip demonstrating that women have a long history in kung fu films, and were violently kicking mens’ butts years before things like ‘trigger warnings’ existed. Let’s not forget that. Here’s to the ladies of kung fu!


2 thoughts on “Your kung fu demo doesn’t look like fighting, and I don’t care

  1. Hi Mike!

    Sure, there’s the “WuShu” stuff that happened post Communism, but going back way before this happened I think there has always been a performance element, even in the “functional traditional wushu”.

    The Kung Fu Tea blog’s “Through a lens darkly” series has done a good job of presenting the typical postcards from the 1900-1930s of kung fu street performers in posts like this one:


    Numerous period accounts given by social elites in the Republic period suggest that the martial arts should be above the “base concerns of the market.” Yet for many (perhaps most) martial artists, the skills were as much about economic as physical security. Each of these images helps to reinforce the historic connection between boxing, performance and commerce.

    Even those students of the martial arts who once considered themselves to be beyond such concerns often discovered that the gravity of market forces were impossible to escape all together. In closing I would like to quote the following wry observation by Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man-someone who was once a very privileged student of the martial arts who fell on hard times.

    “When I was little, I used to see people doing martial art demonstrations in the streets. When they were finished, they would sell Chinese medicine to you. These people would travel from province to province and in this way, they would make their living. I never imagined, that when I got older, that I would be doing a similar thing. Instead of showing my martial art skill in the street, I teach seminars on Wing Chun Kung Fu.”

    Ip Chun,“Fifteen Years – Traveling the World to Sell My Skills” (Qi Magazine, March/April 2000, issue 48 pp. 26-28.


  2. Well, Chinese martial-arts openly declare that there is the showy contemporary wushu versus the functional traditional wushu. A lot of westerners don’t understand that known dichotomy and conflate the two different perspectives, thinking that they are the same thing.

    Another problem is that a lot of the old traditional Chinese martial-arts used to train a type of hydraulic pressure to their arms (and legs, sometimes) that they used in actual fighting. In order to load up their arms and hands with this type of rock-hard pressure, they would swing and flail their arms during fighting. It looks ludicrous until you understand the purpose. 😉


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