Four Keys to Good Kung Fu
People ask me all the time, “Sifu, what are the keys to being good at kung fu?”
My standard answer is always the same, realized after many years of being on the path to mastery myself. (Whether there even is such a thing as mastery, is still an open question. As most people tend to use the word, inferring achievement of perfection, a stopping place past which further development doesn’t exist, I tend to think not. We may keep getting better over time, but mastery? Well, I don’t know about that.) What I have learned, is that there are four things that you must have to be good at Kung Fu.
By training I mean being trained in the system of your choice, with a good, qualified teacher. A real honest to goodness sifu, not just someone who plays at being sifu on YouTube. A real sifu can act as your guide in so many ways. The term sifu (whether your teacher is male or female) means “Father” and just like a good parent, a good sifu will have your best interests in his heart and not just be after your money.
He will guide you through the trials and tribulations of long term kung fu study. Most kung fu styles, especially Ving Tsun, must be passed on directly and personally from sifu to student. I have travelled 7,800 miles (one way) for the last 14 years to be by the side of my sifu, Grand Master Ip Ching. at least once per year, sometimes more, to experience that close personal contact. Sifu once told me, “Ving Tsun is a very personal art and that is how it must be taught. You must take time to touch hands in chi sau with the student so they can learn how it feels when it’s done correctly. And you can guide them through the movements and show them correctly how they must be done. If you don’t chi sau with your students they will never get any better.”
So, you can see that being in close proximity to a qualified sifu is critical to your successful progress and development in kung fu. With this understanding, now you can know why it’s a complete waste of your precious time to try to learn from any YouTube sifu. You don’t know them personally, nor they you. For newcomers to any art, it’s challenging enough to tell a good sifu from a bad one, even when meeting them face to face. It can be hard to know what questions to ask them to make a good determination. What’s their character and their knowledge of the art? On Youtube, which is only a monologue, not a true dialogue between sifu and student, who can tell? A Youtube sifu may have very questionable understanding of the art itself, only instilling you with poor understanding and bad habits, which once learned are hard to get rid of. It’s the same with trying to learn from videos or books.
Without being around your Sifu to pick up the nuances of the art, all you are doing is imitating movements. And, that’s not kung fu; that’s imitation. You see, kung fu is about an exchange between sifu and student. Because the exchange with the sifu is every bit as important as the technique, I’ll write another article on how to go about finding the right sifu in the future.
This aspect is crucial. In order to have good kung fu you must commit to both the art and the teacher. You must give 100% to get 100%. This means being willing to jump in with both feet. Trust your sifu and trust the art. If you don’t have the commitment, you won’t put in the effort needed to have truly good skill. Give yourself up to the study. Make the time, even if it mean that other things in your life may have to go by the wayside. You have to be ok with that.
Kung fu is a life of discipline, routine, hard work, effort and sacrifice. As I typed this up on my iPad, when I typed the word “sacrifice,” the auto correct kicked in and typed “scary face”, so having a scary face is important as well, according to my iPad. )
3. Practice, practice. Then? “Practice more!”
I have a friend in Hong Kong named Albert. He’s my Sihing, or older kung fu brother. His skill is out of sight; one of the best in the world as far as I’m concerned. He’s been involved with Ving Tsun for many more years than me. How serious is he? The man straps on safety glasses when he does Chi Sau; so there ya go. Whenever his students come to him with a problem or trouble in their Ving Tsun, he has a standard answer. He adjusts his glasses and says, “You must practice more!!!”
It’s the same answer I’ve gotten from Sifu Ip Ching many times. For a long time this answer use to frustrate me to no end! It seemed like he was dodging the question. Every problem I had he would say, “Practice more!” How could it be? How could so many questions all have the same answer? Impossible! Infuriating! Of course, because it’s true. And now I find my self saying the same thing to my own students. “You must practice more! ”
If you’re in kung fu then you probably already know what I mean by all this. If you’re new, well then, understand this: To have the ability to really be able to defend yourself you MUST practice. Self defense skill requires ongoing training. It’s not a, “10 easy lessons and you can defend yourself,” kind of thing. A daily practice regimen is essential. Carve out the time. Attend class! Skill never has been nor ever will be, built by sitting on the couch watching TV, not even watching the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball while eating chips and salsa, one of my favorite pastimes.
Kung fu skill can’t be built by watching videos or making them. Nor by many of the other things that occupy us in this technological time, this information age. If you are a sifu already, still you must practice. Many times when people start teaching, they figure they don’t need to practice anymore. They think they have mastery. Actually, I think that as teachers we have to practice harder. The sifu should be the hardest working person in the school. But that is for another post.
This is a biggie. Many people these days simply don’t have patience. We live in a fast food culture. We want what we want and we want it RIGHT NOW! Look at how fast everything in our lives is. Fast cars, fast computers fast food; nobody has patience for anything anymore. We want it yesterday. One thing I can say for sure is, this impatience won’t help you have good kung fu. There is an old kung fu story which tells about a student who went to a masters house to learn from him:
“Master,” he said, “if I work extremely hard how long will it take me to master the art?”
“The rest of your life,” said the master.
“I cant wait that long,” said the student. “I’m ready to do anything to learn. I want to become your most devoted disciple. I will as train as hard as you say and do anything you ask. How long will it take?”
“Perhaps ten years,” said the master.
“But what if I work extra hard? What if i train night and day then how long?” “Oh, maybe thirty years.”
“Thirty years! First it was ten, now thirty! I don’t have that long! Master! I’m willing to do anything! How long?”
The master looked up from what he was doing. “In that case, you better stay with me the rest of your life. A person who’s in as big of a hurry as you are, cannot learn anything quickly.”
Here’s one thing I tell every student at some point. It’s the same thing Ip Ching told me. Simply this: Have patience in your search for perfection. Don’t worry about it. Just practice. Just practice and try to be a little bit better than you were yesterday. Over time, perfection will take care of itself. If you have patience.
So there you have it. Four keys to what we’re all looking for; top skill in kung fu. Of course these aren’t the only things we need, but they’re some of the things that through my own experience, I see as very important. I hope you can learn something from this.