Down, but not out? Kung Fu in Hong Kong

There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.

The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.

The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.

Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:

“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring.  The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape. 

During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing.  Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.       

Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.  

By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace.  This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat.  “

Daniel Amos

Read the full interview.

Podcast Ep 4: Discover the link between martial arts and Shamanism with Damon Smith

What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.

Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.

But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.

And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.

In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

Lineage Queens

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.

So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.

The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?

Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?

I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!

This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.

Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.

Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?

My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.

These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.

Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.

Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.

Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.

A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.

So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Kung Fu work out with David Rogers

Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.

Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.

Registration is open for the next 7 days at Rising Crane Kung Fu Virtual Academy. He also has a Rising Crane Tai Chi Virtual Academy course starting this year as well.

I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.

That is one mean looking crane. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The multitude of meanings in Chinese Martial Arts

“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020

Bruce Lee, Cha Cha dancer.

I haven’t posted much recently, but the recent deep dive my podcast has taken into the history of a particular Chinese martial art (Taijiquan) seems to have coincided with a number of contentious discussion I’ve had elsewhere on the history of Chinese martial arts that have been taking up my time. Let me redress that imbalance now.

Experience has taught me that if you tell a group of Chinese martial artists that Chinese martial arts used to be so intertwined with Chinese theatre and religion that the two were indistinguishable you invariably annoy them. You will be laughed at and shunned. There are howls of outrage.

No! Chinese martial arts are based purely on effectiveness for fighting! Are you crazy?!?!

But at the same time the very same people will put on demonstration of martial arts (sometimes in the street, but sometimes in an actual theatre!) and perform things like Dragon Dance, without giving it a second thought, or thinking it in any way detracts from their pursuit of serious martial skills, or their wish to be see as serious pugilists.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. I think it’s hard for people living in the modern age to get their heads around what it would have been like to have lived at the time these arts they practice were created. Yet, it’s important to note that the people who created the Chinese martial arts we’re all familiar with now – things like Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, etc, lived in a time when ghosts, demons and ancestors walked amongst us. A time when rituals were used to appease their spirits and gain spiritual merit for the community, and martial arts played a huge part in that.

The performance of a martial arts form was itself the enactment of a ritual for self consecration. The Chinese Government always used ritual to organise the state. The Chinese state was a religious state (See China: A Religious State, Hong Kong University Press).

As the 20th century began in China, the shame felt over the Boxer Rebellion and defeat by European powers, gave way to the realisation that modern ways would need to be adopted to avoid the humiliating defeats that had gone before. This lead to an almost endless series of wars, revolts, reforms and tragedies that resulted in societal change right down to the core, and the martial arts being stripped of much of their social, spiritual and religious function to become simply pugilistic calisthenics. Considering the horrors China endured, we should be glad they survived at all. 

Two great Chinese martial artists I have a lot of time for are Tim Cartmell and Byron Jacobs. Here they have a robust and fantastic discussion about what they’ve trained in and their thoughts on making Chinese martial arts practical again by using modern sparring methods (amongst other things). 

The conversation is really down to earth and useful. It’s clear that they consider the Chinese martial arts to be about fighting first and foremost. Can you imagine throwing in concepts of theatre and spiritual rituals into this conversation? You’d be laughed straight out the door! (If Youtube has doors, that is). 

I think that’s why it’s very hard to talk to martial artists about things like ritual, theatre and how these were entwined with Chinese martial arts almost 200 years ago. They are clearly not today, to the same extent, and yet the connection still persists in China (somehow!).

As Jo Riley relates:

‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tang quan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).

Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997.

Some people are engaging in this conversation though, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. Daniel Mroz has just given a lecture at the most recent Martial Arts Studies Conference, (which was a virtual event, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic).

His lecture “The Meaning of Taolu in Chinese Martial Arts” is now online:

Or you can read it here:

Here’s a great quote regarding Choy Li Fut:

Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective.
This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods.

Here’s a great presentation by David Palmer and Martin Tse on the connection between social practices, ritual, and martial arts:

Personally I would like to embrace both these world views – the practical and the spiritual (for want of a better word).  I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive at all. I am interested fully in the practical application of Chinese martial arts, but I’m also happy for its long and complicated history to enhance what I do. I don’t see it as a distraction or an irrelevance. I am so grateful these arts have survived during some of the worst atrocities in human history and made it through to the modern age, and I think viewing them in their original context empowers today’s modern practitioner. 

Human beings are capable of entertaining many different perspectives on something simultaneously, even if they are sometimes contradictory. In the words of Bob Dylan on the opening track of his excellent new album, 

“I’m a man of contradictions, 

I’m a man of many moods, 

I contain multitudes”.