What Makes It Kung Fu?
What is the difference between kung fu or Chinese martial arts to the so-called 'western martial arts'?
I could go with the answer that it is up to the user and not the martial art itself.
However, it is not that simple. There are clear and detailed differences between Western and Far Eastern martial arts.
Maybe that's not entirely true.
Western vs. Far Eastern maybe does hit it to a degree and superficially, yes, but not in essence. Although culture plays an important role, which I like to go into further and deeper, before we get there, there are very essential other aspects of the topic itself that should be addressed, understood intellectually, and grasped with the spirit.
What exactly makes a movement a kungfu movement and what makes it modern savate, or kickboxing, or boxing movement, for example? Where do I see the exact DIFFERENCE?
Well, many would now directly mention certain movement images from the classical animal forms, for example, which, in contrast to kickboxing or boxing, are quite clearly recognizable.
The fact that a movement comes from an animal shape does not make that movement 'Kung Fu'. If it were that simple, the demand and need for this article would not exist. It would be clear: animal shapes = kung fu and typical boxing / kicking with gloves = kickboxing. It is not that easy.
The historical background says just as little about the qualities of a movement as the culture where it comes from. This can be compared to a person who comes from a certain culture and political background. Origin says little about his HUMAN qualities, even if many of us do not yet see it that way. It is the HUMAN himself who chooses, cultivates, and refines his character qualities. The culture and political background can be communist, socialist, capitalist, or even a totalitarian dictatorship - or religiously the background could be Taoist, Buddhist. Muslim, Christian, Hinduist, etc. The culture can be middle-eastern, western, far eastern, European, or southern American. People from all cultural and/or political backgrounds can have the same character traits. This is the inner drive of the person himself, even if a lot can be influenced from the outside through the culture and family, the ultimate CHOICE of what kind of person I should be, I always reserve myself as a person.
Something similar (not really the same, but similar) is the case with martial arts. It is not the style that decides what qualities a movement has. The style can promote or influence this, but it is entirely up to the learning OBJECTIVE which qualities are actually achieved and which skills are manifested. A LEARNING GOAL arises from DEMAND. A small example to illustrate this: Take the southern tiger style from Shaolin Quan. This 'style' includes certain elements of grounding, flexibility, light-footedness, speed, stable stance, leg strength, increase in bone density, joint strength, finger and wrist strength, grip strength, suppleness, breathing training, structure formation, Vocal strength, and vocal cord training, muscle-, ligament-, and tendon strength enhancement, to name just a few of the qualities. Now, this gives a large pool of possible skills FROM THE STYLE, however; the DEMAND and LEARNING OBJECTIVE will produce the qualities actually manifested. Style can actually give the potential for the development of certain attributes, but not really the manifestation of these.
But what do I mean by LEARNING OBJECTIVE and DEMAND?
The example of the southern tiger style: A dancer, who finds the movements of this style very graceful and exercises them because of their suppleness will benefit from the style's tools. But it can also be a purely health-oriented person who practices this style to improve his joint strength and lets himself be convinced of the advantages of increasing tendon-, bone-, and ligament strength and makes this the main goal of his practice.
Another practitioner of this style may be convinced of breathing training, quickness of movement, and vocal power as skills and therefore practice this style. Even if ALL THREE practitioners have the SAME set of movements and the same forms, the abilities of these three students will be fundamentally different! The dancer will not achieve the tendon strength and bone density of the health professional, the third student, who mainly focused on breathing training and vocal strength, will not achieve the suppleness of the dancer and vice versa. The reasons for this are the training METHODS within the style. The STYLE is the same. The ORIGIN is the same, the CULTURE of the style is the same, the lineage leading to the founder of the style is the same, but 3 students, 3 completely different skills and qualities.
Neither the culture, nor the lineage, nor the country, nor the fact that they are classical animal forms (to stay with this example) is 'mainly' decisive for the actual manifestation of ability, quality, and expression of movement.
It is the training METHOD that is critical to the given potential of the style AND potential of the student.
Back to our BASIC question: WHAT makes it kungfu? WHAT is the difference between kung fu and other martial arts?
Here I have to expand the topic into the definition of martial sports and martial arts. Because that already makes a big difference.
In a sport, certain GOALS are already given by the 'sporting'. In ART, however, FREEDOM is the drive.
The one that can turn a dancer into a smoother dancer, the health-oriented person into a healthier person, and the person of expression into an artist who is capable of deeper, more meticulous-accurate expression skills.
The freedom arises from the pool of potentials - the manifestation, however, from the methodology of practice.
The name says it all: It is an ART. Behind that, there are things that are far beyond the scope of a 'sport', without downing the 'sport', on the contrary; SPORTS are the pulse of the healthy life-(style) of humanity's majority.
Professionally performed sport is certainly also a physical exercise with certain qualities. THESE, HOWEVER, are subject to the sporting GOALS. Let's take boxing. Of course, you can do it just for fun. The MAIN DIRECTION, however, is always already given and set. It is the BOXING TECHNIQUES, BODY STRUCTURE, FITNESS, and very specific STEP WORK with the right coverage and the associated strategies that define this sport. These are connected to the corresponding COMPETITIONS and are largely based on them. This means that a person who has to contest a TaekWonDo fight in the near future will certainly not go to boxing as preparation for it, but will practice Taekwondo. This also applies the other way round, because other GOALS are already 'SET' WITHIN the SPORT.
How does this work in a Martial ART?
Martial arts also have their goals. That's correct. However, these are not based on sporting events and competition tenders, but on the HUMAN itself and its growth. At that point is the first big difference.
That said; a martial sport can certainly also be an ART. That is not impossible. Nevertheless, this art is also dependent and subordinate to the GOAL of SPORTS.
In art, however, the development of the HUMAN is paramount.
This development can be physical, and- or mental-spiritual. But it is not a sporting event that influences or defines this development. The focus is on the freedom of the 'tools' to be used, as well as the manifestation of certain skills through very specific learning methodologies. These are FREE and almost limitless as an origin and source in art because it is the heart now that indicates the drive, not the regulation at a sporting event.
An approach from the sports perspective and the competitive drive can empower very specific skills, TAILORED TO THE SPECIFIC SPORT, to the extreme - to the peek (see today's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). At the same time, THAT is exactly why a lot of other tools of skills are neglected or simply NOT given as potential.
As described above, this 'specialization' is also given in ART, so that here too 'neglection' of certain other qualities can arise. However, here at least the main perspective is not limited to a competition-based skill, but often offers, as in our first example, many specializations for different purposes (health, physical-fitness, superiority through tendon-power, ligament and bone strength, Suppleness, light-footedness, etc.)
Now the USER is the one who chooses which qualities he personally wants to push forward, it is not the SPORTS or the specification of the 'sports'-competitions. (There is an important difference between sports- competitions and the competition itself, as such, which THROUGH 'FREE' COMPARISONS can lead to FREE further development.)
What now turns kungfu into kungfu? When can I call myself a kungfu man or a kungfu woman?
Or different: Would a person who has a little desire for training with boxing gloves describe himself as a boxer? Or when a person learns a pair of joint locks for fun on a regular but rather obligatory basis; would he call himself a grappler? Would a dancer call himself a kungfu fighter just because he is now also dealing with kungfu animal shapes in addition to his dance? Certainly not. The dancer remains the dancer, which alone already represents one of the highest arts of humanity in my eyes ... The fact that this person learns the movements of certain animal forms does not make him a kungfu person.
WHEN will it become kungfu?
Through the clear skill that emerges!
Then also the dancer is a kungfu person and also the boxer and also the kickboxer if the skills and qualities are relevant and related to kungfu.
Apart from the fact that Kungfu = Gongfu = Acquire skills through the continuous expenditure of time and effort = EVERYTHING can be called Gogfu that has been continuously practiced and become a skill over a long period of time, we here take Gongfu as KUNG FU - the American term for the Chinese martial arts from the 60s and 70s. Meaning: KUNGFU as a term for Chinese MARTIAL ARTS.
As noted at the beginning, it can be said here "a Martial art is a martial art, the origin does not matter". However, certain INNER martial arts types from Chinese culture harbor very specific qualities and abilities that make this sentence void (not valid for THIS SITUATION AND MOMENT).
First of all: What are INNER martial arts?
I do not want to give the history repeating explanations here and name the typical 3 well-known inner martial arts Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Xingyiquan in order to then contrast them with the typical external styles, such as Shaolin Quan, Tongbei Quan, Yongchunquan (Ving Tsun), Piguazhang and other styles, which are CATEGORICALLY named as the EXTERNAL styles, because my conception of INNER and EXTERNAL style has considerable differences to the generalized opinions of main large martial arts scene of PR China.
To me, inner style or an inner system means that this system has 2 characteristics.
1) The training METHOD includes certain INNER exercises that we call INNER WORK
2) The abilities that can be seen testify to this training methodology.
In this respect, I have personally met an immense number of Shaolin masters, whom I clearly count among the INNER STYLE USERS, and enough Taijiquan masters who I clearly count among the external styles users.
Given how I PERSONALLY differentiate these two training methods, we will now speak of the INNER styles.
An art that extensively treats and invigorates the tendon force, and places it ABOVE the muscle force while the exercises have a clear method that the tendons and ligaments are continuously strengthened as well as acquire a very dynamic and strong character, then we speak of physical-INNER Skills. (there are also mental- and spiritual inner skills, that are not the topic in this article).
How does that show?
Unreal speed and stability in the movements with precision, lightness, and power transmission that border on unbelievable.
Now: ATTENTION! This ability does not say anything decisive about the combat strength, combat ability, and strategic combat skills of the user!
A 100-meter runner can be the fastest person in a race, this quality and ability say nothing about his COMBAT BEHAVIOR. These are two fundamentally different qualities.
This is the main reason that many kungfu experts, relying on their inner abilities, go into combat and fail mercilessly because the actual COMBAT skills (such as timing, distance feeling, taker qualities, body language, movement rhythm, and above all the experience of asserting oneself with and against uncooperative 'opponents') is missing.
The INNER skills can enhance the actual COMBAT SKILLS, no question, but they cannot replace them!
To put the opposite conclusion here:
Am I a good kungfu man now because I can fight well? -NO-
Am I a good kung fu man because I learned animal shapes? -NO-
Am I a good kungfu man because I am learning and practicing certain techniques and movements that are part of a classical lineage? -NO-
Am I a kungfu man just because my style is called 'kungfu'? -NO-
I can apply this to all other 'styles', 'systems', and 'concepts'. Be it Jeet Kune Do, Ving Tsun, Xingyiquan, Taijiquan, Shaolin Quan etc.
It is not the name of the 'style' or 'concept' that makes ME what I am, but my GOAL-setting in training and my willingness to give.
Back to the main question ... WHAT exactly is the difference in KUNGFU?
Personally, I always like to take the DRIVE of power as an important point of reference. So as not to get lost in terms like DAN TIAN and NEI GONG .. it's still pretty easy to explain. What is the DRIVE in my movements? What is the ENGINE? The centerpiece and where does the will, the intent, and the main intention come from when I move? In short, from which ESSENCE am I moving?
For me, this is the main difference between INNER GONGFU (as a style) and (western) martial sports and martial arts.
In the beginning, I spoke of the fact that culture does not bring differences in martial arts skills. I later explained that training the INNER abilities and arts can make differences (especially culturally conditioned).
Now let's look at these cultural differences...
We are mainly talking about Chinese martial arts here as these are my main focus. Certainly, there is a lot that I do not know from the world of western martial arts. In this article, however, I will only use my knowledge of the martial arts from the Middle Kingdom.
If you take a closer look at the millennia-old and constantly evolving culture of China, you will discover - no matter which corner you look into - a feature that ALWAYS and ALWAYS stands out. And that is the trait of 'GIVING IN' in order to survive. I can also express this terminology in the following way: softness in order to (continue) to operate.
What is in this word softness and what hides in this statement?
Continuing to operate means longevity.
Softness is the way how the FEMALE survives. It is far superior to the MALE at this point. Female sperm cells have been shown to survive longer than male sperm cells. It has been proven that female sperm cells are slower than male sperm cells but stronger and stronger over the course of life. The male sperm cells, on the other hand, are more agile and dynamic. The age limit for mortality for women is far higher than for men. Women can be described as survivors - without simply limiting them to only this quality.
if a person (regardless of whether man or woman) can adopt feminine characteristics, this can extend the quality of life and above all life expectancy. That, too, is something predetermined in our opinion! The CHOICE of the lifestyle, however, 'shows' accordingly WHAT was predetermined. Longevity through softness and calmness, or rather a fast, dynamic life that is shorter.
This is precisely what is reflected within the martial arts culture of people who have made longevity through softness to their lifestyle over centuries, even millennia.
One of the numerous subdivisions between NEI JIA and WAI JIA (inner and external/outer styles) is also the basis of the ORIGIN of this martial art. Thus, Shaolin Quan, which is historically based on Buddhism and came to China from India, is something that came from the OUTSIDE (WEI JIA) and certain Taoist styles, on the other hand, styles that have developed FROM THE INSIDE (NEI JIA), as Daoism is seen as a doctrine that can be traced back entirely to China.
As a result ... the culture actually and nonetheless weighs quite heavily in, what inner kungfu is and what external/outer kungfu is, or which skills are literally among the inner skills and qualities and which are among the styles of the external cultures.
We said the METHOD OF EXERCISE. Here we come full circle!
I call it the METHOD of the feminine, yielding, and the work and vitality that arise through devotion to the strong. This now contains many aspects which cannot really be dealt with within the context of this article, but which can be dealt with at a later point in time. What is important for us, however, is ... what an OVERALL ATTITUDE OF PRACTICE is illustrated here as a picture! It is NOT the image of the ambitious athlete, but rather that of the enduring adept.
Real tendon strength cannot be achieved by using rough muscle activity.
Real and dynamic tendon strength that can be used in combat, which contains insane speed and endurance as a skill, cannot be achieved through conventional or innovative endurance training or strength-endurance training, because these primarily work on the development of MUSCLE GROUPS and the LUNG VOLUME, while internal dynamics depend a lot more on the development of tendon force through DISCHARGE of gross muscle use, as well as teaches deep breathing instead of lung breathing!
The development of tendon strength is divided into 3 main categories:
1) Static tendon force
2) Dynamic tendon force
3) Dynamic Tendon Rapid Strength.
The static tendon strength is mainly (not only) trained and practiced through standing meditation and breathing exercises. Long, conscious and meditative standing induces deep relaxation, which helps the muscles to completely relax and the period of time in which this happens ensures the activation of tendon vitality that connects the muscles with the bones, because tendons are, due to the fact they are not as flexible as muscles are, designed to HOLD certain positions while the muscles are more likely to guide the body's movements.
Of course, there are also HOLDING muscles, such as certain muscle groups on the back, (to the contrary to the biceps), that have a more HOLDING effect than the biceps that are for MOVING the arm instead of holding it constant. But in GENERAL, tendons are structured differently than muscles themselves. Due to their stronger and less flexible nature, they have the potential to HOLD a position MORE THAN the muscles would. Exactly, for this reason, the so-called inner development of the tendons begins THROUGH the 'relaxation of muscles' and 'longer' holding of a certain position, applied according to the inner Feng Shui, which we do not do in everyday life or in other types of sports or martial arts.
Over time, this inner practice increases the static strength of the tendons that are accentuated in the meditative standing position.
This is the first important part and step towards the Inner Skills of this Art. A corresponding further method to develop this tendon force within the flow of movement is the SLOWLY relaxed movement, be it Taijiquan, or conscious PARTNER EXERCISES (such as the Tui Shou, Inner Chi Sao, etc.) in which relaxation is in the foreground, in compliance with certain breathing and feeling principles, which animate the movements separately from the inside.
This is similar to the dynamic tendon force, only that the previously 'held position' is now supplemented by very relaxed dynamic movements. Here, specific focused pulling and flapping movements are practiced at comparatively longer intervals so that, over time, the dynamic punch and pulling force can be added to the static tendon force. This is the moment when the other person is 'pulled' and does not know what is happening to him because he cannot muster any power against it.
Finally (at this stage) the practitioner begins to combine the rotational energy coming from the center of the body with flapping, opening, and closing motion. Secondly: The so-called wave force, which is drawn from the ground, reaches the arms and hands via the legs, hips, back, which belongs to this exercise level. The higher variant is the power from the essence (the Dan Tian - elixir field of the body) used to amplify the movement many times over and to manifest an unreal speed within complete relaxation.
These are SOME of the differences that distinguish KUNGFU as such from certain other martial sports and arts.
The subject is highly more complex if I should explain it in detail, but this article should be sufficient only to give a superficial perspective.