Learning applications vs training for real skill

By Dr.Kenneth Fish.


          Dr. Kenneth Fish is from U.S.A., he had lived in Taiwan for about 15 years. In Taiwan, he had studied Chinese martial arts under a few famous masters include Zhang Junfeng. He has a deep understanding and practices of Chinese internal and external styles. With his permission, here is his article.


            In the 40 or so years that I have been doing CMA, I have seen many approaches to teaching and learning traditional Chinese martial arts. The more I see, the more I appreciate the very traditional manner in which I was taught.  Every highly skilled teacher I have had has taught the same way - and i believe with good reason.  My first teacher, Henry Leung, taught me his family style of proto Wing Chun.  I learned from him every night in the basement of his restaurant. The first month consisited of nothing but stance work and very basic hand movements.  Sifu Leung would correct me regularly throughout the night, but mostly it was solitary work to get stance strength w/ quality of strength (springy yet strong), alignment, and mechanics (song kua, center in the area below the groin, relaxed shoulders, hip and akle joints etc). Sifu Leung would only add a movement or a concept if he felt I demonstrated sufficient grasp of what he taught me up to that point. Progress was slow, methodical, and painful. Sometimes other new students would come, and soon be doing applications. I felt like I was missing out, and asked Sifu about it. He told me "never mind them. Don't pay it any attention. You do your work".  That was not terribly satisfying, but I did as he said. Later I realized that although the other students had learned lots of techniques, their skills existed from the shoulders on out - they did not have the foundation skills. Why did Sifu Leung teach them this way? Basically, he was giving them what they wanted (demanded in a sense). He, like most teachers, separated students (in his mind and teaching) into students and customers. The customers would come and go, and would not have either the intellectual capability or patience to do the real work. They would leave happy with what they got (basically a bag of tricks) and were not even aware that there was another world of depth and skill to be learned - the real art, the real kung fu.

            This process was repeated with most of my teachers. When I learned from Master Zhang Jun Feng and his wife Xu Baomei, it was the same. Master and Mrs. Zhang would have me training skill (liangong) while others were working on applications. Again, I would ask, and be told (generally in somewhat hushed tones) "just work on what you are doing. You can learn that any time. This is more important now".

            Others followed - Mrs. Zhu Suyi, taught me Tongbei, Xingyi and Bagua in the same way. My Shaolin teacher was equally strict and even more severe with his training methods. After the foundation work was in place with each teacher, I slowly learned the sensitivity, speed, footwork, body placement, and application work with each teacher.  Traditional instruction was rational, methodical, and progressive in nature.

            Today I see a lot of students and teachers who emphasize learning to fight from the start. I cannot count the number I have seen who have spent a year or two with a list of teachers, amassing forms and techniques, with very little in the way of real kung fu body mechanics and movements.  What is distressing to me is that this seems to have become the standard, and these teachers and students do not know what it is that they do not know.

           The problem is two fold - teachers with only a low level of understanding giving students what they ask for (essentially Kungfu flavored kickboxing) and students thinking that this is what it is about and demanding the same from their teachers. And so even really skilled teachers do as Sifu Leung and my other teachers did - give the students what they ask for (instead of what they need), and dividing the instruction up between students and "customers".

            Teaching kung fu is hard. It is not easy to find good students with the physical and mental attributes it takes to learn these complex, demanding skills, yet modern egalitarian culture tells us that anybody can become good at anything.  While I believe that although anyone can attain a degree of skill at any endeavor, there are some limiting factors - innate talent, the amount of work invested, and competent instruction.

            Contrast learning traditional Chinese martial arts with learning, say, ballet or piano. If a student were to complain, after a month or two of instruction, that they can't yet leap like Nureyev or improvise like Coltrane, they would be thought of as delusional. If the student slacked in practice, and complained that they were getting nowhere, there would be no question as to where the fault lay. Yet weekend martial arts students, or students who invest perhaps an hour a day in martial arts practice expect to reach levels of skill comparable to the teachers of generations past.  It simply cannot happen.

            I now, more than ever, teach like my teachers taught me. I concentrate on the important details of foundation skill with them, and we train them endlessly. Applications are shown as a way of letting the student know what the importance and applications of the skills they are working on are. Real fighting skill? After about 3 years of foundation work ( given the constraints of modern training time).  Time in practice is a determining factor - I put in about 5 hours a day when I lived in Taiwan (5:30 to 8:30 AM on most days, then some more in the afternoon, and at least an hour at night). If this seems unreasonable, how many hours a day do you think a ballet dancer or classical guitarist trains and practices?

            Excessive concentration on learning to fight in the formative stages of learning will, in my opinion, impede the acquisition of real skills. The student will only learn/reinforce what they already know or what comes most easily, and will eventually leave with nothing but techniques.