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Most of what Americans know about the rest of the world is skewed by media and white-washing of history and culture from the outside world. This is no different when considering China and her imported treasures, including what has commonly come to be called “Kung Fu.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extra real, phenomenological reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism[/pullquote]Technically speaking, what people call Kung Fu is Chinese Wushu (武術, “war art”) or Zhongguo Waijia (中國外家, “Chinese External Fighting Arts”). Like the term Karate (空手, “empty hand”) came to be associated with Japanese fighting arts – budo (武道) – the typical way in which occidental society off-handedly assigns terms to any group of people without knowing their meaning, is the primary cause of confusion. It is also the cause of many, many martial artists being confused about Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, or TCMA.

To start with, let’s talk about the original definition of Gong Fu (or what I call ‘excellent skill’).
“In Chinese, gōngfu (功夫) is a compound of two words, combining 功 (gōng) meaning “work”, “achievement”, or “merit”, and 夫 () which is alternately treated as being a word for “man” or as a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings (the same character is used to write both). A literal rendering of the first interpretation would be “achievement of man”, while the second is often described as “work and time/effort”. Its connotation is that of an accomplishment arrived at by great effort of time and energy. In Mandarin, when two “first tone” words such as gōng and  are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu. The word is also sometimes written as 工夫, this version often being used for more general, non-martial arts usages of the term.” [Angle, Stephen (2009). Sagehood: the contemporary significance of neo-Confucian philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

So what happened to this term? Not to put too fine a point on it, but Bruce Lee happened. While it’s true that the term was being subbed already in kung fu cinema, the reality is that before Bruce Lee almost no one knew the term at all, nor had the industry expanded outside China and Taiwan except to very eclectic margins of society. [ Lorge, Peter (2012). Chinese Martial Arts From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.] However, once Bruce Lee began to define Kung Fu as something special and different from fighting, “karate” and other arts (see scene above from Way of the Dragon), then the term became synonymous with all TCMA. This is unfortunate on both the level of conglomerating so many styles that are so vastly different, which huge cultural differences even within China, and temporal origins; and unfortunate in the limitation of the term gongfu to a small aspect of life: fighting like a Chinese man, and the lifestyle of Chinese martial artists.

What I’d like to do is first dispel that myth, and refer you to a very famous parable (the “Dao of Cow”), and finally finish by describing the four levels of gongfu, and how to attain them.

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There are many stories in the world of Jiang Hu / Wulin (the martial underworld), too many to retell here. Of two of the more famous are the stories of Bodhidharma coming to China 1500 years ago and bringing Kung Fu (and Zen) from India to China, and of Zhang Sanfeng creating T’ai Ch’i (taijiquan) by seeing the battle between a crane and a snake. Both of these stories are actually only partially fact, actually mostly non-fact, and majorly fiction.

The real truth is that Kung Fu/Wushu goes back to ancient China, far back into the mists of time. Martial power was all important in the Shang, Zhou, and Warring States periods. [Canzonieri, Salvatore (1996), Emergence of the Chinese Martial Arts – Warring States to Han Dynasty eras, Han Wei Wushu Newsletter I #11]. It is more than likely that it was around this time that lineages of boxing formed in family units and among the elite. At that time, generalship required a highly cultivated, aristocratic personage which had access to the best tutors, of scholarly, civil, and of course, martial knowledge. It is most likely that during this period arts in spear, Ge (a hook like halberd), trident, and sword were created along with empty hand methods of combat, for close battle conditions. Like most things in the feudal periods of mankind’s history, such knowledge would have been passed on from father to sons, and only within the family. This was, in fact, the method that kept Tai Chi a secret within the Chen family until the 1800’s (a story for another time).

The truth is that gongfu is and always has been about how you do the martial arts and anything else and not about what you do. Karatekas can have gongfu. Boxers (like Muhammed Ali and Tyson) can have gongfu. But so can people not in martial arts. Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson are two people that come to mind who were the top of the world in their skills and industries, clearly displaying gongfu. It was this facet of their performances – and not solely what they performed – that demonstrates gongfu making them international stars. (See Jackie Chan below)

Nothing demonstrates the original theme and meaning of gongfu like the Zhuangzi (Ch’uang Tzu) parable, “Dao of Cow” actually known as the “Dexterous Butcher”.

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Naturally then, if one wants to be popular, successful, or at least just excellent at one’s own chosen profession, the query is: “what is gongfu born of, and how does one attain it?” The most natural assumption is that repetitive practice and having a good teacher will result – like the proverbial American Dream itself – as some kind of manifestation of goodness added to the person until it overflows from them. This is partially true, of course, as practice is required, and the limit of the teacher’s knowledge will limit the student to some extent (so long as the student remains systematized or ‘boxed in’ either by choice or the dogma of the system or the coercion of the teacher).

However, what isn’t understood by westerners, importantly by martial artists (even in TCMA) is quite “how to get it.” There are three things one must understand:

  1. No one can “give” anyone gongfu, no matter how much the learner wants it or the teacher wants to give it; nor how hard the teacher tries to force it to happen. It cannot be forced, it must be whittled out of, or drawn out of the person. Usually through hard work and ethical or character improvements.
  2. It takes time, usually lots of time to develop. But it also takes brains. Many of the top martial artists fall into two categories. The first is a group of hard-working, dedicated researchers, brawlers, and scholar-warriors (Shi or Knights), who feel self-motivated to improve themselves, their art, etc… The second is a group of highly charming, sometimes manipulative, virtuosos who are dangerous in both physical and verbal skill.
  3. It is, regardless of beliefs and intent, related to Qi (energy, vital breath). There are people who develop this skill, and people who naturally “channel” the spiritual, whether by natural talent or destiny. But either way, the more of this vital energy within the person the more they move quickly, with meaning, power, grace, smoothness, clarity, crispness, and potency. They also easily attract the attention of others who look at them as examples of having “it”… that indescribable quality which makes a person a “success” in the eyes of the media.

So, for the person reading this, what are the levels of gongfu and how each will be attained systematically despite the limits of physical body, teacher’s knowledge, dogma, or nagging self-doubts and petty fears?

[accordion open=”1″]
[accordion-item title=”Warrior Skill”]The most easily attained, but painfully gained, type of gongfu is that of a fighter’s (战士, Zhanshi) skill. It is acquired only by enough fighting, sparring, grappling, or wrestling. Over and over again, honing their skill through sweat and blood. Developing bloodlust, Keen, and personal toughness and power they acquire an uncanny fighting skill that leads to the ability to read people’s body and movements. It is not a skill quickly acquired, nor without great sacrifice. After all though, it doesn’t require much brains, but it does require some basic logical deduction as the fighter cannot be a mere Pifu (brute) but must also be able to learn from mistakes; his own and others. This makes this type of fighter unique and rare. Not generally respected*, except in movies, but still to be respected for their accomplishment of Warrior Skill.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”True Path”]This is also, relatively speaking, fairly easy to acquire as a skill. It only requires, simply, to enter upon the Way, and to simply refuse to get off. Now this Way (道, dao)is not the “true Tao” or Great Way, but is a meaning of assimilation to the pursuit of gongfu, Dao, and various things like health and longevity, or even powers etc… What makes the True Path so difficult [/accordion-item]
[accordion-item title=”Mastery”]Mastery (征服, Zhengfu) is not at all about “arriving” or ending at a certain place, as much as it is about refining the Self and following the True Path. Mastery involves being able to move a “certain way”, being smooth, potent, capable, and adaptable. Mastery of gongfu does not equate the right to call oneself a “Master” and demand respect. Quite oppositely, it requires that one be able to transcend the ego, and become humbler through repetitive practice and service to the school, Shifu (師父, teacher), or community. Shifu itself does not mean “Master”; not in the English sense of the word. Master, as a title, should be reserved for those who have wide respect of skill and ability, as well as a specific lineage or system they are burdened to represent. Having the title “Master” in the East is not considered a positive karma but rather a weight upon the person, as if they are destined to be bound to the world. A Shifu is merely a person teaching and of respect in a community. Even a barber or car mechanic can be a Shifu. For various examples of the way a person of mastery moves, see the end of this article, as well as the above videos of Bruce Lee.[/accordion-item]

[accordion-item title=”Perfection”]Perfection (完美, Wanmei) [of skill] most difficult type of gong to attain, is a set of gongfu which was traditionally trained for using repetitive measures doing difficult to do, monotonous, painful, or even asinine things. By performing a routine or habit over and over again, the body would be shaped by will to conform to a desired vision or outcome. This resulted, sometimes, in extraordinary prowess, powers, some supernatural, and even miraculous skills. These were almost always nothing directly to do with Warrior Skill or the ability to fight. Extreme examples would be swimming under water for ten to twenty minutes at a time, inhaling water through the nose and out the mouth; sleeping between two chairs with only the head and heels touching; withstnding high volumes of torrential water from waterfalls or moving creeks; running on water, walking on paper; breaking things; and even wall-climbing using one’s back and elbows. Sometimes the gong attained was for deadly potency in arts such as Death Touch, San Da, Ironpalm, etc… but actually these feats are quite rare to attain or to use in any type of combat situation. Most of the time the practitioners preferred hermit lifestyles or to be less that infamous so as to not be disturbed as they practiced their craft. The point is, to attain perfection at something like pulling trees up from teh ground had almost nothing to do with combat, and everything to do with transcending normal human limits. And it takes a long time: 3,5, 10, or even 30 years to develop the skill.[/accordion-item]


* It’s a strange thing that many warriors are often slighted by regular people. Soldiers, boxers (especially bankrupted ones), and professional wrestlers get almost no respect in outside life. Perhaps jealousy is the cause, or perhaps the human psyche doesn’t respect violent people, only fears them. Whatever the case may be, in feudal China, although warriors were absolutely vital they were often treated contemptuously. In the 1800’s the streets of Hong Kong and Beijing and Shanghai were filled with martial artists of profound skill working for pennies by showing off their gong. Films have been made depicting the treatment of these humble souls as as low as dogs by even prostitutes.

Xingyi Ironpalm
The Divine Crushing Fist Guo Yunshen ( 郭雲深; 1829 – 1898)

In conclusion I hope that the reader has become at least moderately familiar with the basics of the concept of gongfu, and if so inclined, has a relative interest and a general direction to pursue their most chosen of craft. The Warrior Skill is often the most coveted, but it is rather difficult to attain. Mas Oyama, before he beat all comers and killed bulls with his bare hands, left society and trained alone in the woods for years (just as Tony Jaa does). Musashi survived duel after duel after duel, dozens of them. Same thing for Wu-Tzu the famous undefeated general who attained revenge on his killers even after his death. These people have one thing in common: an unusually talent for fighting and a proclivity for violence. It is not a lifestyle for soft, cushy types or pacifists. To attain this gong outside of fighting is very difficult, and requires a flirtation with darker shades of oneself.

As for the others, they are all considered very ethically safe, but even in the attaining of gong there is always the danger of egoic temptations. Even temptations beyond the level everyone gets in their second year of training. Real temptations to join the “Dark Side”.
I finally want to emphasize that you can have any one of the gongfu types or even more than one, but it is rare to find a person who excels at all four or even three of them. This is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with that. Having “more” gongfu isn’t a thing. You either have gongfu or you don’t.

The following videos are all examples of people who have attained gong, whether they kept it or not. Some of them are well known to have fallen from Grace (according to common moral standards). But regardless, they each attained a rare type or types of gongfu, and can be learned from (or about). Thank you, Shifu Ramon


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