1. Introduction and Background
Unlike most other forms of martial arts, Kung Fu assimilates fighting styles and disciplines from a variety of approaches and ideologies. Popular styles include Shaolin KungFu,Wing Chun, Mok-Gar, Lau Gar, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Wu Shu and Kickboxing. Certain techniques involve the training and use of weapons. It is considered to be both a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ form. One may use another’s force and momentum effectively against a larger and more powerful opponent or take the offensive, attacking quickly and aggressively, especially in an encounter with multiple assailants. In a nutshell then, Kung Fu envelops all Chinese martial arts.
‘Kung Fu, meaning “sustained effort or skill”, incorporates hundreds of styles such as wing chun and tai chi. However, there are common traits which complement the whole picture within kung fu. All disciplines start with basic stances and motions which act as a platform from which a student may learn and study different styles and forms. As skill levels rise, these forms progress into higher levels of difficulty, allowing the student to gain fluidity and dexterity before competitive training.’ (Goodman p145)
Students may decide to participate in Kung Fu for a variety of reasons. They may wish to improve their fitness, increase their chance of survival in a threatening situation or could be intrigued by the rigorous discipline, meditative and spiritual aspects that accompany it. Certain styles can be practised by all ages and abilities and some techniques take years to master, meaning that an individual may continue to progress in skill at a later stage compared with other sports where the athlete peaks in their twenties or thirties.
Undoubtedly Kung Fu in recent years presents a cool image, meaning adherents may well receive respect and admiration from their peers. The ability to perform difficult athletic manoeuvres, or to break objects with minimum effort, appears instantly impressive.
Ironically though, a rigorous and highly disciplined system of self defence entrenched in ancient Chinese decorum has become somewhat inconised, blended with humorous overtones and marketed extensively across Europe and the States. Media coverage has exploded and greatly popularised Kung Fu in Chinese Opera, cartoons, circus acrobatic displays, film, computer games and celebrities. In particular though, Bruce Lee was massively influential in introducing Kung Fu to the west.
‘Bruce Lee, a student of Yip Man, was an exponent of Wing Chun with movie star good looks and legendary charisma. His physical prowess was indisputable and he was so fast that other champion martial artists simply could not block his punches. Bruce Lee was an accomplished fighter, philosopher and created his own style of Kung-Fu, Jeet Kune Do or way of the exploding fist. His first three movies broke box office records and the classic Enter The Dragon was the highest grossing movie ever to have come out of Asia. Worldwide success boosted the popularity of Kung-Fu a thousand fold and all over the USA and Europe, martial arts schools were opening up and taking in students who wanted to be just like their hero, Bruce Lee.’ (Talkkungfu)
In addition to being an expert fighter and film star, Bruce Lee also authored several books. Following a chronic back injury that threatened the possibility of Lee ever performing martial arts again, Lee commenced writing.
‘Clawing his way out of a severe depression, Lee passed the time spent recuperating by writing a book concerning his philosophies of his martial art, entitled the Tao of Jeet Kune Do.’ (Stevens p101)
The Tao of Jeet June Do is the best selling martial arts book in the world. Bruce Lee researched different styles and named his form ‘Jun Fan Gung Fu’ However, Lee’s grand initiative was not the invention of a new style. Lee wished to encourage students to free themselves from cleaving to a specific fighting art, school or institution and instead to simplify their approach through economy of motion, utilising universal combat techniques appropriate to any given situation.
Although in Western culture Kung Fu is a relatively recent and contemporary practise, its eastern roots stem from philosophical systems dating back to around the time of Buddha. Three times World Kung Fu champion Tony Anthony explains how a modern day participant would need to embrace a mindset that is committed to the doctrine and values that Kung Fu was born out of.
‘To become a true student of martial arts is to accept a whole code of living, unlike anything known in the western world. Its roots are derived from spiritual discipline and the practise of Taoism. According to martial arts lore, the father of Kung Fu was the Indian monk Bodhiharma. To the Chinese he is known as Ta Mo. Legend has it that he left his monastery in India to spread the teachings of Buddha throughout China at the beginning of the sixth century…Ta Mo required that students be disciplined in the ways of meditation and the continual quest for enlightenment, but he found that the monks consistently fell asleep during meditation. He recognised that their bodies were weak and feeble, so he devised a series of exercises, (Anthony p19-20)
2. History and Philosophy
Kung Fu is interwoven with the three traditional Chinese worldviews, Buddhism, Taoism and, to a lesser extent, Confucianism. All of these philosophies are over two thousand years old and still have a massive influence on Chinese culture today.
Many styles, moves and stances are named after the movement of animals such as white crane, praying mantis, snake, tiger and drunken monkey style kung fu. The founders of these styles observed and analysed their fighting methods and attempted to mimic and adapt them to use in combat situations and self defence.
‘Wing Chun is known as a ‘soft’ style, but is in fact a blend of both hard and soft techniques. This blending of hard and soft is due to the fact that a sensible balance is necessary. One story is that Wing Chun Kung Fu was originally developed by a woman. It is also said that the originator (said to be a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui) observed a battle between a cobra snake and a crane bird. From her observations sprang ideas to develop this art. Mimicking animal movements is particularly common to Chinese martial arts and some systems even copy the animal idiosyncrasies. However, Wing Chun Kuen is devised with the human structure in mind and relies on the strategies of the encounter.’ (www.ukwingchun.com)
The influence of Buddha and even more so his disciple Bodhiharma is inextricably linked with Shaolin Kung Fu.
The first reference to Bodhidharma during his lifetime, however, describes how he marvelled at the beauty of a particular temple, how he claimed to be 150 years old and how ‘with hands clasped, he daily invoked devotedly the name of the Buddha’. (www.wengchun.co.uk)
Bodhiharma journeyed from India to China in the sixth Century and is credited as being the father of Zen Buddhism. He allegedly stared at a wall for nine years and during that time wrote books on the subjects of meditation and Qigong movements.
The mind development and spiritual cultivation were actually the original goals of Bodhidarma (an Indian monk) when he first taught the Hsi Sui Ching (On Cleansing the Marrow) and Yi Chin Ching (On Transforming the Muscles) at the Shaolin monastery. Later, these two sets of exercise programs were developed into Shaolin Kung-Fu. When you practice genuine Shaolin Kung-Fu, you also practice Chi-Kung and Zen – mind development and spiritual cultivation. In Chinese culture, “mind” and “spirit” are similar. (www.shaolin.org)
Taoism has also contributed its influence on most Chinese fighting styles by incorporating the concepts of Tai Chi, not reacting with force, and the importance of change. Wing Chun is a form of Kung Fu whereby the values and teaching of Taoism are pivotal.
‘Wing Chun is centred on the Taoist principle of “take the middle road”. In essence, this says that you should not go to extremes, and that success is based on balance. If you are on the middle road you can see both the left and right paths, but if you venture too far to one side you may lose sight of the other. This can also be interpreted as the concept of hard and soft principles-or yin and yang. Yin (the feminine side) focuses on diverting the flow of energy; yang (the masculine side) seeks to resist any opposing energy flow. Yang is primarily seen in the explosive quality of the striking moves.’ (Goodman p148)
The two prinicipal Taoist texts are the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching. Since ‘I’ means change the I Ching is ‘the book of changes’. The I Ching is also used as a method of divination providing wisdom for life issues and problems. The Tao Te Ching means ‘the Book of the Way’ or ‘The Way of Power’. Not only is the Tao Te Ching instrumental with regard to Taoist religious thought but Buddhist philosophy draws heavily from it too.
‘Taoist philosophy as exemplified by The Tao Te Ching can also be traced back to 518 BC. The author, Lao Tse, was searching for an end to the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime. The result of his struggles was an alternative system of moral truths and social conduct that contradicted the prevailing thinking of the times. The major guiding principle for Taoism is to “take no action that is contrary to nature”. The other important Taoist philosophers include Chuang-tzu who advocated the pursuit of emptiness or hsü – a timeless state free of worries or selfish desires. The practitioner should be open to new ideas, but transcend all individual material objects.’ (ottawakungfu)
Lastly Confucius played a key role in enabling Chinese martial arts to be practised by wider cross sections of the population across China.
‘Around 140 BC Dong Zhongshu advised Emperor Wu that Confucianism should be the only ruling ideology. For centuries thereafter, Confucianism dominated traditional Chinese culture. Kung fu was a part of this culture… Not only did he found Confucianism, he saw to the spread of martial arts – long reserved for the Emperor and his officials – to the common people.’ (Kung Fu Magazine)
3. The Holistic Approach
Concepts such as chi and ying and yang are also found in other martial arts, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, yoga and a whole host of diverse therapies. The basic premise is that chi is a universal life force that needs to flow uninhibited across the meridian lines across the body. Chi is supposed to be stored approximately an inch below the navel. Breathing exercises and Eastern Meditation techniques are employed to release the chi energy to enable it to flow more effectively. Hence if someone is not feeling well it may be assumed that the chi has become blocked as the chi is not able to transport itself through the meridian highways properly.
In the health section of the British Kung Fu Association website, advice is provided concerning Chinese medicine, health and fitness, yoga, chi kung and meditation. Therefore a holistic approach to these supporting disciplines is greatly encouraged.
‘The worldview that underpins the principles and practises of Chinese medicine is based on the Daoist understanding of a universe where everything is interdependent and mutually interactive; nothing is interpreted or analysed without reference to the whole.’ (British Kung Fu Association)
Further information is provided concerning how meditative practises can be beneficial for improving one’s fighting ability. A student can summon their chi energy effectively if they allow the energy of the body to follow the energy of the mind.
‘Even the most basic meditation practise will increase your ability to focus, to concentrate, and even to relax. What could be better for kung fu practise? In oriental medicine it is a universal maxim that the energy of the body follows the energy of the mind…With regular meditation practice the energy of the mind becomes more and more even. Following on from this the energy flowing in the subtle channels becomes more harmonious and the actual physical body can become stronger, more flexible. Even movements can become quicker and more powerful.’ (British Kung Fu Association)
In Chinese thought, all matter, in fact everything, is either yin or yang. These are supposedly complementary opposites. In the context of martial arts active or passive actions are attributed to yin or yang movements.
‘Chinese Kung-Fu (martial arts) has two aspects: Internal and external. Internal Kung-Fu trains the Chi (vital energy) and the spirit. External Kung-Fu trains the skin, muscles and bones. External Kung-Fu teaches the mastery of movements and postures, while internal Kung-Fu teaches the mastery of the Chi. Chinese martial arts are like Yin-Yang; Kung-Fu is Yang and Chi-Kung is Yin…The first step in training one’s Chi is to breathe from below the diaphragm (an acupoint about three inches below the navel), a technique called “the Chi sinks to the elixir field.”… Once someone has perfected the internal Kung-Fu, built up his physical strength and learned to control his Chi, then he will be able to concentrate the power of his whole body into every punch or kick, and will naturally acquire an aura of strength and authority. But, in order to be able to really conquer the opponent in a fight, he also needs to master some movements and techniques. These movements and techniques are external Kung-Fu. Cultivating both internal and external skills is the only path to be a great Kung-Fu master.’ (Kung Fu, Chan & Zen)
4. Separating Theory and Practice- The Physical and the Spiritual
From a western view, it is quite common to separate theoretical and practical aspects of our culture, dividing the secular from the sacred or spiritual. Therefore one may ask whether it is possible to train and acquire fighting skills without giving credence to the philosophical dimension?
Or another student may enquire whether it is possible to study the spiritual aspects and origins purely out of interest but only in relation to a martial arts class a couple of days per week? The website, www.shaolin.org provides an insightful response to those questions.
‘You will be in for a surprise if you think that the philosophy of Shaolin spirituality is merely theoretical. All Shaolin philosophy is geared to practical benefits. Spiritual cultivation in the Shaolin teaching may operate at one or more of the following three levels, depending on the student’s developmental stage.
* Leading a morally upright and happy life.
* Enjoying heavenly bliss in the after life.
* Attaining enlightenment in Zen.’
Someone else might question exactly how far it is possible to progress in a kung fu discipline merely by adhering to the physical training alone? The evidence suggests that an individual would need to develop a thorough understanding and put that knowledge into practise to progress to a higher level of a particular art.
‘All great Kung-Fu masters use deep breathing techniques (Chi-Kung) to develop internal force. Without the internal force, the Kung-Fu remains at its external and mechanical level that is considered as rough and low-class by Chinese martial artists.’ (Kung Fu, Chan & Zen)
5. Kung Fu for Christians?
Whilst I was reading ‘Taming the Tiger’ by former world Kung Fu champion Tony Anthony it was interesting to hear him relate some of his experiences.
‘I was taught that all things are products of cosmic negative and positive forces, the yin and yang, which can be harmonised in the study of Ch’i. In the human body the Ch’i is best understood as the flow of energy…Learn to control the Ch’i, boy. Tap into its universal energy and you, too, will have power many times your natural strength.’ (p22 Anthony)
Noticeably the physical and spiritual aspects were trained simultaneously for maximum improvement.
‘We trained with the eighteen classical weapons of the Shaolin, including clubs, spears, swords, tridents and whips. All were incorporated into my Tai Chi routines. Many of the weapons were used for exercise, to build strength, speed and agility, as well as for combat purposes.’ (p34, Anthony)
Now a committed Christian who regularly shares his testimony whenever possible Tony Anthony has long since left his Kung Fu days behind him.
However there are certain clubs and organisations that actively encourage Christians to participate in various forms of Chinese Martial Arts and Kung Fu is no exception. Often with good intentions, advocates may argue that they could be an effective witness in that environment. They may even progress a step further and mention that they will work hard at improving their fighting techniques and physical fitness though they will draw a distinction when it comes to the meditative instruction by contemplating something other than summoning the chi energy or even praying to God whilst others are drawing upon life-force energy.
Nonetheless as already stated, Kung Fu is a holistic activity and its spiritual roots are entrenched in Buddhism and Taoism. Few missionary organisations would advise spending a couple of hours in a Buddhist or Taoist temple a couple of times per week as part of their cross cultural ministry! The bottom line is that Kung Fu and Chinese martial arts are fighting systems with those underlying philosophies at their very core, and it is difficult to separate the spiritual element from the purely physical. In the same way that the phrases ‘Christian Buddhist’ or ‘Christian Taoist’ would clearly be a contradiction in terms ‘Christian Kung Fu’ or ‘Christian Chinese Martial Arts’ immediately presents a dichotomy of worldviews that are simply irreconcilable!
The concept of a dualistic balance of the universe, yin and yang, chi energy, meridian channels, meditating on objects or planting your thoughts in to another person or animal are ideas that are in direct opposition to what the Bible teaches. Also there is the danger that recently converted Christians may well assume that because a more mature believer attends Kung Fu classes then it must be okay.
6. Sharing Jesus
In an effort to build bridges, it may be helpful to ask a person questions about what they believe about God before persuading them to abandon Chinese martial arts training.
In both Taoism and Buddhism there is no assurance of salvation concerning what will occur in the after life and where one goes is determined largely by their own efforts in this one. What a joy and of infinite value it would be though, to have a certainty of going to heaven! When the Philippian jailer asked how he could be saved, Paul replied ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ (Acts 16:31)
The Christian is not saved through their own endeavours but by God’s grace. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.’ (Eph 2:8-9) This is a particularly helpful text because it draws a distinction between faith in Jesus Christ and all other faiths and doesn’t come across with an ‘I know better than you’ attitude!
In Kung Fu and Chinese Martial Arts, God is presented as not personal or knowable but as a life force, both good and evil. Jesus Christ came to earth in human form and despite being God He revealed Himself in a way that people could relate to. In the Bible, God is entirely good and without inconsistencies. ‘For all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He.’ (Deut 32:4)
The philosophical systems that govern Kung Fu are not able to provide a solution to the problem of evil or ensure justice. As there is a day of judgement, Scripture does provide answers to the problem of evil and therefore encourages the believer that ‘It is better to put confidence in God than to put confidence in man.’ (Psalm 118:8)
Kung Fu and other fighting styles are often focussed on self. However, since God is good, then the believer is reminded not to be dependent on themselves as ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up His cross and follow Me.’ (Matt 16:24)
Lastly, Kung Fu meditation will likely involve concentrating on an object, say a candle for example, or on one’s breathing or directing energy around the meridian channels. An individual may be seeking a more peaceful state of existence and may never achieve the way of life or enlightenment they are striving for. Nevertheless the Bible describes the blessing of the way of the righteous ‘But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he mediates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in season its season, whose leaf also shall not whither; and whatever he does shall prosper.’ (Psalm 1:2-3)
Anthony, T. with Angela Little Taming The Tiger (Authentic, London: 2007)
British Kung Fu Association www.laugar-kungfu.com
Goodman, F. a handbook of martial arts (Southwater, London: 2004)
Introduction to Wing Chun Kung Fu www.ukwingchun.com
Kung Fu, Chan & Zen www.springsgreetingcards.com/
London Shaolin Weng Chun Kung Fu Academy www.wengchun.co.uk