Shaolin Kungfu



Can Kungfu be Used for Fighting?

Due to various reasons, many people only learn kungfu form, without progressing to developing force and sparring, and without understanding kungfu philosophy although they may have read its clichés.

Today it has become a norm that a kungfu student does not know how to defend himself even if he has learnt so-called kungfu for many years. Some even wonder whether kungfu can be used for fighting.

Others consider kungfu patterns too complicated, and advocate simplifying kungfu movements to straight-forward punches and blocks.


Crystallization of Effective Fighting

Actually all the kungfu patterns we have today are the crystallization of centuries of effective fighting. In other words, past masters have evolved through the centuries the most effective ways to overcome particular combat situations, and have stylized them into kungfu patterns.

Let us take for an example the following Shaolin pattern called "Fierce Tiger Descending from Mountain", Photo 1. Uninitiated students may have performed this pattern many times in solo practice without knowing what it is for; some may think it is too flowery to have any practical uses.

A likely evolution of this pattern is as follows. Past masters found that they could effectively block a thrust punch using a particular movement as in Photo 2, now stylized into a Shaolin pattern called "Immortal Emerges from Cave".

Photo 1 Photo 2

A Better Alternative

Later other masters discovered a better alternative as in Photo 3, a pattern called "Single Tiger Emerges from Cave", because by withdrawing the front leg and "leaning" his arm against the attack instead of blocking head-on, the exponent used less energy and was more flexible.

Subsequent masters discovered that the exponent did not even have to withdraw his leg or block the attack. By shifting his body backward, but without moving his leg position, the exponent allowed the punch to pass, Photo 4. Shifting his body forward again he "leaned" his arm against the opponent's attacking arm, with his tiger-claw against the opponent's face, Photo 5. All these are performed in one smooth, continuous movement, and is now stylized in a pattern called "Single Tiger Presents Claw".

Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5


Avoiding Weakness

But the masters realized that while this was an effective pattern, it had a weakness; it left the side-ribs exposed. A competent opponent could easily "float" the attacking tiger-claw, and simultaneously strike the side-ribs with the other hand in a pattern called "White Horse Lifts Head", Photo 6.

To avoid this possibility, past masters used two tiger-claws instead of one. Pressing his right forearm against the opponent's upper arm and feigning a tiger-claw attack to the face, the exponent strikes the opponent below with another tiger-claw, Photo 7. This is now stylized into a pattern called "Fierce Tiger Descends from Mountain".

Photo 6 Photo 7

Importance of Force and Skill

Using effective techniques constitutes only one of numerous factors necessary for victory in combat. Another important factor is what is known in kungfu terminology as "kung", which is roughly translated as force or skill.

You many apply this Fierce Tiger technique correctly, but without "force" -- which in this case depends much on your stable Bow-Arrow stance -- you would not be able to "control" your opponent with your right forearm, nor cause sufficient damage with one tiger-claw palm strike at close quarters.

Without skill -- which includes fluidity of movement, right timing and correct spacing, you would not be able to implement the technique effectively.

In the Shaolin tradition, such force and skill are not acquired haphazardly in free sparring, but developed systematically using appropriate methods. Thus, before a Shaolin student starts to practise sparring, he has to spend some time on force training.


Flowery Fists and Embroidery Kicks

If you go straight to sparring without first learning and perfecting your kungfu forms, you may improve your fighting ability through your own experience, but you will missed the centuries of experiences of past masters who have crystallized their collective fighting ability for you.

On the other hand, if you merely learn kungfu forms without developing "force" and methodologically learning how to spar, you will help to perpetuate what past kungfu masters referred to as "flowery fists and embroidery kicks" -- pretty movements meant to please spectators but unfit for combat.


Golden Bridge

A fundamental exercise in Southern Shaolin Kungfu to develop both powerful arms and solid stances is called the "Golden Bridge". It looks simple; basically it consists of "sitting" on a Horse-Riding Stance and holding both arms straight ahead with the hands in a "One-Finger Zen" formation.

Like Shaolin kungfu patterns, this Golden Bridge exercise was not invented out of the blue, but evolved over many centuries through many processes. While it is very difficult for those who have not spent some time in this exercise to believe how profoundly powerful it is, it is easy for the uninitiated to think its training a waste of time.

They reason, superficially, that in actual fighting one does not hold the arms and stand motionlessly as in the Golden Bridge exercise. What they fail to realize is that the exercise is not meant to be a fighting technique, but meant to develop powerful arms and stable stances so that the exponent can execute any fighting techniques more effectively.


Don't Fight Like Children!

But even if you can perform kungfu patterns in solo practice and know how to use them to overcome combat situations, as well as have developed sufficient force and skill to back your techniques, you still cannot spar well until you have actually practised sparring methodically.

Merely donning a pair of boxing gloves and starting to spar is one sure way of making you appear like a clown or into a sitting duck for experienced karate, taekwondo or kickboxing exponents. When they attack you, you will be unable to defend yourself with the beautiful kungfu techniques you have arduously learnt in solo practice.

The reason is simply you have never learnt how to spar, no matter how many years you may have spent in practising solo kungfu sets.


Unable to Use Kungfu Patterns

Set practice is meant to familiarize you with effective kungfu patterns.. After you can perform kungfu patterns flawlessly, you have to practise applying them in combat situations, and this has to be carried out methodically.

The usual problem is that students do not know the methods and the procedure. The result is pathetic: it is not uncommon to find kungfu exponents with more than 10 years experience fight wildly like children.

The more experienced fighters perform better, but what they use are usually not the kungfu techniques that they have learnt, but techniques borrowed from other martial art systems, especially karate, taekwondo and kickboxing.

Indeed, if not for the kungfu costumes they wear and the few kungfu poses they sometimes use before the actual combat, spectators in a sparring competition would be unable to tell whether they are kungfu exponents. In sparring competitions of any other system, irrespective of whether it is judo, karate, aikido, taekwondo, wrestling or kickboxing, spectators are easily tell what art is involved.


A Poor Excuse

A common excuse given by some kungfu instructors for the poor performance of kungfu competitors is that the wearing of boxing gloves required by many competitions restricted kungfu expression.

While it is true that with the gloves on, many kungfu techniques like the tiger-claw, the dragon-hand and the mantis-hook cannot be effectively employed, it is also true that the remaining kungfu techniques that can be effectively employed are overwhelmingly more than all the techniques in all the remaining martial art systems put together!

Take the clenched fist, for example. A kungfu exponent donning boxing gloves can have a dozen ways of using the clenched fist, whereas an exponent in most other martial arts has only three or four.

There are more than 30 types of leg techniques in kungfu, whereas in most other martial arts there are less than five.


Be True to Yourself

Even the basic kungfu stances -- which many kungfu instructors say, on their lips at least, are important -- are discarded in a competition ring for bouncing about as in western boxing.

If the students and their instructors believe that these techniques from other martial arts are more effective, they should be true to themselves and leave kungfu for these other martial arts. It is time-costly to spend five years learning kungfu patterns to be thrown away to the winds in a competition ring, and settle for karate or taekwondo techniques which they have hardly trained enough.

Personally I believe kungfu techniques are more effective. If I am beaten by an exponent of another martial art, it is not because kungfu is not efficient, but because I have failed to use it well.

Because the repertoire of kungfu is wider and deeper than that of other martial arts, it takes more time to practise it. But that doesn't mean we practise blindly. We should assess our results with reference to the effects our art is purported to give.

If kungfu is purported to be an effective fighting art, we should be able to use kungfu movements to put up some decent defence even if we lose the combat. If not, we have to review our training procedure, or change to another martial art.


Kungfu is an Exceedingly Effective Fighting Art

In reality, kungfu -- any style of kungfu, including taijiquan -- is an exceedingly effective fighting art. There are various reasons why an overwhelming majority of kungfu students cannot use their kungfu techniques to fight.

Firstly, most of them do not know, even theoretically, how the techniques are applied for combat. Secondly, they do not have the necessary "kung", such as power, speed and fluidity. Probably the most serious factor is that they have had little or no methodical practice in sparring, even among classmates. Most kungfu training, especially in its modern, demonstrative form as "wushu", concentrates on solo performance.

Photos 8-11 illustrate some Shaolin Kungfu techniques against the four main types of kicking attacks. Defence against kicks is chosen because many kungfu students do not know how to counter kicks, as well as have a mis-conception that kungfu has few kicking techniques.

In Photo 8, as the attacker executes a high kick, the kungfu exponent moves in diagonally, "floats" the attacking leg, and simultaneously strikes the attacker's vital organ, using a pattern called "Bailing the Moon from the Sea". But Shaolin disciples normally stop short just before the target to avoid hurting the opponent. High kicks such as shown here by the attacker are strongly discouraged in kungfu.

The attacker executes a middle side-kick in Photo 9. The kungfu exponent withdraws his front leg diagonally backward, thus avoiding the kick, and simultaneously strikes the attacking leg to fracture it, in a pattern known as "Lohan Strikes a Drum".

In Photo 10, the attacker uses a low kick to strike the exponent's groin. The exponent withdraws his front leg into a False-Leg stance to avoid the attack, and simultaneously breaks the attacker's shin with a palm strike, using a pattern known as False-Leg Hand-Sweep".

Photo 8 Photo 9 Photo 10 Photo 11

Simple, Direct and Effective

In Photo 11, the attacker uses a round-house kick. The kungfu exponent moves slightly forward towards the other side, and simultaneously executes a thrust kick at the attacker's groins with a pattern known as "White Horse Presents Hoof". As usual, the Shaolin disciple stops short just before hitting the target -- in this as well as the other examples.

The kungfu techniques shown above are simple, direct and effective. It is a big mistake to think that kungfu is elaborated or flowery, full of frills meant for demonstration but unnecessary for combat. If you are well trained, as soon as your opponent attacks, you stop him with just one stroke. The numerous exchanges of attack and defence, and sometimes of kicks and blows, you see in kungfu movies are meant to entertain movie viewers; they rarely happen in real fights.

Please note that techniques are only one of numerous factors determining victory in a combat. Other factors include force, speed, judgement and temperament, which are "formless" and are often more significant than techniques which has "form".

In other words, a kungfu student may know the beautiful form of fighting techniques, but if he has no striking power, is slow, confused and panicky, he is likely to be beaten by an ordinary street-fighter who knows no martial art. In fact the term "kungfu" refers to the training of these factors collectively called "kung". Like the techniques, the training of "kung" in Shaolin Kungfu is also simple, direct and effective.

The secret of developing "kung" is practice. In fact the word "kungfu" sometimes refers to "time", i.e. the time required to master these formless combative factors or "kung".


Procedure to Train Sparring

While you aim to stop your opponent with just one strike, if he is competent,.he will be able to counter your strike and so an exchange will occur -- though in real life it is seldom like what you see in a kungfu movie. Sparring practice is a good way to train for such combative exchanges.

Different masters have different ways of connecting the gap between set practice and free sparring. One effective way used in Shaolin Wahnam Kungfu is as follows.

  1. Understand and apply selected kungfu techniques to overcome specific combat situations.
  2. Arrange these specific techniques into short meaningful combat sequences.
  3. Gradually release control over pre-arranged sequences.
  4. Introduce variations at appropriate points of the combat sequences.
  5. Link short sequences into longer encounters.
  6. Gradually diminish control over long encounters.
  7. Introduce variations or changes at any point at will.

Although this section focuses on combat application, combat efficiency is only one of the many benefits of Shaolin Kungfu training. In today's law-abiding society, this martial function is rarely used, yet the effects of practising Shaolin Kungfu as a martial art, and not as "flowery fist and embroidery kicks", are readily and rewardingly transferable to our daily living. If you are trained to have the stamina to last an hour's sparring, the agility to executive fast, complex movements, and the mental freshness to make-split second decisions, you will have sufficient ingredients to meet life's mundane tasks.

It is pertinent to remember that Shaolin teaching abhors brutality and aggression. A Shaolin disciple will fight well if he has to, but he never glorifies fighting. Becoming a fearless or fearsome warrior has never been a Shaolin ideal; a Shaolin disciple rather chooses to lead a quiet but meaningful life, one that is rewarding to others as well as to himself.

Many people have asked why an overwhelming majority of kungfu, including taijiquan, practitioners cannot use during sparring the techniques they have learnt in solo practice. "Can Kungfu be Used for Fighting?" deals with some questions and answers related to this topic.

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