What Happened to the Grandfather of the Martial Arts
The martial art of Kung Fu boomed in the West during the 1970’s thanks to Chinese cinema and has since created a global awareness that is arguably, second to none when it comes to a combat art.
Yet, this relevancy has remained for the most part, reserved to movies and culture exclusively. It’s deemed by most practicing martial artists as nothing more than entertainment and lacking any real or applicable combat principles in the world of mixed martial arts.
Because, unlike Karate or Taekwondo who have adapted to the “MMA” era, Kung Fu simply just hasn’t. But, why is that?
Why has Kung Fu been unable to adjust and is perceived, rightfully so, as ineffective in contrast to other arts? The answer to this question is probably found in its country of origin, and in the study of China’s history and culture.
However, getting to that answer is a bit of a deep dive down a very large and extensive rabbit hole, that can be difficult to fully grasp.
To start with, attempting to condense thousands of years of Chinese history is a Herculean task. Think about it this way:
The United States has been a country for only 239 years.
The Russian state is about 1156 years old.
The Greek language has been around for about 3,400 years.
While the first Chinese dynasty? It already existed about 4,100 years ago.
And when you try to explore this issue of Kung Fu’s current state, the biggest problem you run into is being unable to disconnect or discount the Chinese history from the martial art itself, because Kung Fu has also spanned the length of the civilization, culture and society.
Shuai Jiao or Shuai Chiao, the grandfather of Chinese martial arts, often incorrectly referred to as “Chinese Judo” and sometimes known as Chinese Wrestling, dates back over 4,000 years ago as an ancient system of military close combat Kung Fu, in which it was referred to then as jǐao dǐ (角抵) or jiao li (角力) and translated as “horn butting.”
Here’s another thought exercise for perspective:
Japanese Jiu-Jitsu or Judo was introduced to the Gracie family around 1914, 104 years ago.
The Chinese introduced the Japanese to Kung Fu around 650 years ago, spawning the creation and development of Karate.
Pankration was first introduced into the Greek Olympics about 2,600 years ago.
Kung Fu is almost double that.
And because of this massive factor of time that it’s existed, in order for anyone to better its current state, you again, must also understand Chinese history or at the very least, some key components about it.
This circles back to that “why.”
Why has Kung Fu not recovered as an art and why has it lost relevancy in the combat arts conversation?
Breaking Down Tradition, Theory and Philosophy
Unlike other martial arts, Kung Fu is deeply tied to religious and philosophical ideologies.
Whether it’s the Buddhist influences of Shaolin or the Daoist connection to Tai Chi (Taiji, T’ai chi ch’üan, Taijiquan), the Chinese arts are deeply tied to internal or moral development and most of the time, more so than anything external.
Lavell Marshall, a Shuai Chiao Black Belt and a multiple-time national Shuai Jiao champion and international competitor on Team USA, explains:
“There is a much deeper spiritual connection in Eastern martial arts [than others]. Not necessarily religious, but spiritual. It goes deeper into the soul…The whole culture shapes it.”
Historically in Chinese arts, progression was also tied to the development of the self. The journey in Kung Fu branches farther than just competent fighting skills — you also become a better human being.
There are always exceptions to this rule, but Bleys Lee, in a TED Talk, gives an explanation from his time in China:
“I was ultimately confronted with the fact that the theory, the thinking of it had become 99% percent of the practice and the doing of it, had very little attention focused on it.”
Lee then goes on to tie a second issue that is very, very common in the methodology and ideology contained in Kung Fu, to the point of it being cliche. It’s the Chinese idea that students need to spend years and years doing theory and basics, before even being able to actually learn “real” Kung Fu.
This training philosophy of “ten years” was also probably the influence of this famous Zen kōan:
“A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it?” The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?” The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
And because Chinese Kung Fu is so closely tied with religious principles, it’s not meant to be an easy or even attainable task because neither is enlightenment. Becoming a martial arts master is almost synonymous with becoming a religious one as well.
In the HBO documentary, Needle Through Brick, a Kung Fu master, Grand Master Yeo Ching Ping is asked about how many of his students learned all of his Kung Fu, to which he replies:
“Looking at it from the traditional Chinese standards, there aren’t many. Only two to four out of every 100 students can be successful. The rest can’t be successful. Out of all my students, there have been about 1000. No more than 20 have been successful.”
The director of film, Patrick Daly, asked about teaching someone practical Kung Fu in two or three years to a group of masters. He was answered that it could not be done morally and it’s a reason why the art was dying as well.
“This is the traditional culture. That’s why a lot becomes extinct. Chinese traditional Kung Fu is like this.”
These masters stated they could not break from tradition, because they made oaths to their own masters that they would teach it the same way that they were taught.
Lavell expressed his own opinion on the matter as:
“Kung Fu failed because most people that do it, don’t know how to get out of their old ways. They get confused in the teachings and think they have to fight like the forms, when in reality, the forms are just like reading a book with techniques. It’s there as a reference and a way to develop the body for that particular style, but doesn’t mean you fight like it exactly. Kung Fu takes a long time to learn and is hard work, but truthfully, that’s an outdated way of teaching and training it.”
Culture: Lost in Translation
China is not only one of the oldest cultures on our planet, it’s one of the few surviving great ancient civilizations of human existence.
Kung Fu is as old as China and as much a part of its DNA as its history. When you factor in colonialism, various revolutions and uprisings, invasions by the Mongols and the Japanese, as well as modern day influences of the West, it’s not hard to understand why some Chinese masters want to desperately hold onto what they see as their heritage and their cultural identity.
Refusing to teach foreigners or non-Chinese was partly about not losing secret techniques, but it is also about what every culture does when they face change or influence by another — the need to preserve their own at all costs.
Kung Fu is more than just a system of fighting, it’s core to Chinese culture, values and tradition. In the West, to us it’s just technique, but to these masters, it’s heritage.
Professor Ben Judkins of Cornell University investigated this dichotomy from Daly’s essay further. He believes the “demise of traditional martial arts” shouldn’t be understood through the lens of mere self-defense, but through a vast array of values and conveying a range of relationships within the social world:
“In their view, these masters were the ones who were properly authorized to state what constituted an “authentic heritage discourse.” They were the guardians of traditional values and hence “real” Kung Fu”. The preservation of these techniques would require institutional innovation, yet by definition, the values of these new institutions.”
Matt Gelfand, an international and national Shuai Jiao champion, gives an example of his own experience with this practice of “secrecy” and stringently holding onto traditional values:
“In my opinion, the art hasn’t really flourished because of lack of media advertising and secrecy between schools. Recently more Shuai Jiao schools are sharing knowledge, but prior to the early 2000’s, most schools maintained secrecy in the art, in the old traditional Kung Fu way.
“As an example, my Grandmaster, Jeng Hsing Ping (Assistant head instructor at the Taiwan Police College for 25 years) was sworn to secrecy by his teacher Chang Dong Sheng not to share techniques (other than basics), to his students. When (his teacher) passed in 1986, he started training his students in the depths of the art. The same could be said of other students of Chang and their students.”
Uprising, Revolution and Government
Throughout its long history, China’s governments have had a turbulent and mostly violent relationship with their martial artists. The effects of literal centuries worth of collisions between ruling systems and martial arts was not experienced by any other discipline on the planet. As a result, it has also set Kung Fu generations behind every other in the process.
Within the last 200 years there have been: The Red Turban or “Opera Rebellion” (1854-1855), the Red Spears Uprising (1920-30s), The Boxer Rebellion or Boxers Uprising (1899-1901) and one of the most destructive civil wars in history, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). All of which were wide scale events directly involving Chinese martial arts and artists against the Chinese government.
One particular quote from Fightland helps to understand this tumultuous relationship:
“The Opera Rebellion demonstrated the tendency of the Chinese elite to use and exploit the martial element of society when needed, and destroy and pacify it when not.”
Daniele Bolelli, a professor at California State University and Santa Monica College, host of the History on Fire podcast and author of On the Warrior’s Path, weighs in with his own take:
“Martial arts associations have often been nests of rebellion against the government, so plenty of times in Chinese history, the powers that be have crushed them. The Communist government has been no exception, promoting certain aspects of martial tradition (performance and health) while severely limiting the combat elements.”
This isn’t even an archaic occurrence or phenomenon, as recently as 2017 can you find examples of the Chinese government playing a heavy-handed role in the development of their martial arts. A “directive, issued by the General Administration of Sport on Thursday, bans a total of eight practices and follows an intense debate across the country prompted by the humiliating defeat of a tai chi master by a mixed martial artist in April.”
Once again reverting to culture and morality, over combat practicality, “in the directive, which aims to tighten regulations on martial arts-related activities, the General Administration of Sport said practitioners should ‘build correct values about martial arts.’”
This is only one instance of a recent example of state control, in a long history of what is deemed “appropriate” Kung Fu.
Professor Meir Shahar, author of The Shaolin Monastery, suggests the fears of “authentic” martial arts go back as far back as the second half of the Ming Dynasty in China. The legendary Shaolin Monastery is a prime example:
“For most of China’s history, the martial arts were rooted in resistance and rebellion…But for most of China’s history, being persecuted, killed, or imprisoned, along with having all of your belongings taken, your home burned to the ground and your family name reviled for a generation or two was a real possibility for organized martial artists.”
However, there are three pretty major rebellions or uprisings in the last two centuries, that paint a better understanding on the modern state of Kung Fu.
The first is the Taiping Rebellion, which holds the fourth highest death toll of modern warfare and in context specific to this article, involved the martial artists of China warring against the State.
The results of this uprising only solidified the ruling class of China’s continual fear of the martial class and “real martial arts.” It’s a continual thread that not only connects Kung Fu’s cultural ties and impact, but also to how the Chinese government itself operates:
“The Communists have drawn many lessons from the Taiping Rebellion…Co-opt and control the martial arts and never allow the three (commoners, prophets, martial artists) to combine into a powerful anti-government force.”
The second major rebellion that is important to note is the Boxers Uprising, most commonly referred to as the Boxers Rebellion. The Boxers Uprising, much like the Taiping Rebellion, was heavily connected to Western colonialism and traditional Chinese culture at odds with the government.
This uprising had a multitude of effects on Kung Fu practice, it’s teaching and even it’s image within China and outside. Sascha Matuszak explains:
“At best Kung Fu is a quaint, sad reminder of the olden days, when Imperial China was beautiful, cultured and unspoiled by industrialization. It has been hard for Kung Fu to separate itself from the Boxers’ defeat. Even if martial artists in China could regain their status as an important part of the modern social fabric, the possibility of dissent, let alone rebellion, is almost immediately associated with the tragic failure of the Boxers and their misguided, yet brave attempts to save China from the modern world.”
Gene Ching, the associate publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine and KungFuMagazine.com, had a different take when asked about The Boxer Uprising:
“The Boxer Uprising — ‘rebellion’ is a colonialist term that scholars are now replacing with ‘uprising’ — was really more about qigong cults than Chinese martial arts. Nevertheless, it besmirched the reputation of Kung Fu in the world’s view because qigong and Kung Fu can be difficult to separate. Symbolically, it has become the fall of Kung Fu to firearms, much like Japan’s Battle of Sekigahara. It’s notable that both Kung Fu and the secret societies that emerged as the Boxers credited the Five Elders of Shaolin myth, however the Five Elders in Kung Fu are different people than the Five Elders of the Boxers.
“The Cultural Revolution is often cited for its oppression of Kung Fu masters as being part of ‘old culture’ connected to dynastic rule, and clearly that was so. However, martial arts were still practiced. In fact, the Red Guard developed its own unique martial arts style. Keep in mind that even though firearms were now part of China, they weren’t readily available, so Kung Fu was still viable for both sides of the conflict. Modern Wushu emerges out of the Cultural Revolution too, and that’s a dramatic shift in how Chinese martial arts sees itself.
“This is a complex topic so I’m simplifying it with the ‘short’ answer.”
Professor Daniele Bolelli adds even more to this equation:
“The Boxer Rebellion created a sense of disillusionment in the efficacy of traditional martial arts since during the rebellion. It became obvious that guns could wipe out the most well trained martial artists. This led many of the traditional styles de-emphasizing the combat aspect of their art. And similarly, the Cultural Revolution led to a brutal repression against anything traditional — including the practice of martial arts. This led to a further diminishing of available knowledge.”
Lastly, another event was not only one of the most significant in the history of China, but to Kung Fu as well. That is the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
During the Cultural Revolution, many forms of traditional culture were targeted by the Chinese government and forced many practitioners and masters to leave, or worse, be humiliated, incarcerated, tortured or killed.
Under Communist control starting in the early 1950s, Kung Fu or Wushu was decreed as a health-enhancing performing art and denounced any “direct confrontation with an opponent.” It wasn’t until the late 1980s where free sparring events, which had been considered “too violent,” were no longer banned.
This once again added lasting effects on Kung Fu within China, creating 30 years of martial arts focused solely on health over practicality. It’s easy to see what that time period did to the art of today.
Because unlike other traditional martial arts or combat systems that positively ingrained itself into a society’s culture, China has had a love-hate relationship with theirs.
Sometimes good, but mostly bad.
The closest comparable situation to what Kung Fu has faced would be Bushido and the Samurai in Japan, but nowhere near the same extent in history or consistency, from the indirect cultural effects of the Boxers Uprising and then the more direct control by the People’s Republic of China, it’s not hard to see how Kung Fu has turned out like it has.
Is There a Future for the Chinese Martial Arts?
In Kung Fu’s staunch refusal to change or become influenced by outside cultures or ideas over time, while also confronting constant and frequent control, banning or attempts to completely eradicate practical Kung Fu, it’s almost a miracle it’s still even practiced.
Understanding Kung Fu is really understanding China, and that is far from easily done. Nonetheless, it does not negate the glaring and obvious failures of Kung Fu in combat, but it at least puts the situation into perspective.
That’s not to say however, there is no hope to be found for the Chinese arts either.
According to Lavell:
“The government is putting a lot of money and effort to spread their national art [Shuai Jiao]. There is even a pro league now and it is something you can major in at the Universities there.”
There is also the UFC who has been trying to build a market for MMA in China through various events and their Ultimate Fighter series. There are also regional promotions like ONE Championship, Road FC, and Legend FC, along with the other local organizations that hosts MMA events in the country.
With Kung Fu, honestly, it all comes down to whether or not this art has the opportunity to grow and flourish without continual interference. Athletes like Lavell promoting Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu positively, and in a variety of competitions, is a good start, but one man is not enough. Cung Le and other Sanshou-based fighters have shown that the style can be successful, but overall, Kung Fu needs more consistent and reliable results over time. An outlier here and there convinces no one.
The future can be bright, specifically stemming from Shuai Jiao practitioners, but only if history does not repeat itself and allows Kung Fu the freedom to rise from the ashes.
Part 1 of Bloody Elbow’s feature on Kung Fu can be found here: Shuai Jiao: Finding China’s martial arts renaissance in a 4,000-year-old wrestling system
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