Archive for July 20th, 2009


What is Kungfu/Gongfu?

“I know Kungfu.”   – Neo from The Matrix

Most people in the West thinks the word “kungfu” means martial art in Chinese.  Actually kungfu is the Cantonese pronunciation of the word gongfu (功夫).  Perhaps the usage is different in the south, but for rest of China, gongfu doesn’t really mean martial art.  In modern Chinese, the term for martial art is wushuWu (武) means martial, and shu (术) means skill, technique, method, tactic.

So what does kungfu/gongfu mean?  Amazingly, there does not seem to be a perfect one-to-one match in English.  Gongfu in Chinese means level of execution.  Since level of execution is directly related to amount of effort spent practicing it, it also means effort.  As a generic term, you can talk about gongfu in anything, it’s not exclusive to martial art.

The important distinction here is that gongfu is a separate concept from skill. You can have high level execution of a low level skill, just as you can have high level execution of a high level skill.

For example, say there is a need to move a 500 pound weight. Person A decides to approach it using the most direct way possible – he tries to move it with his bare hands.  At first he couldn’t do it. So he practiced and practiced, until he become so strong that he can move that stone by his own muscle alone.

Person B decides to study principle of movement in nature.  And after years of studying, he figure out a way to use levers, pulleys, and wheels to move the same object, albeit with much less physical exertion.

In Chinese we say Person A used a low level skill, but its execution is very high level.  Whereas Person B exemplifies the usage of a high(er) level skill.  Here we cannot say what the first person did was not difficult. It was.   But compared to what the second person did, the principles involved are much simpler, lower level.  For Person B, after achieving the necessary awareness, understandings, and implementing that knowledge and understanding in the form of a machine, the physical work the second person has to do to operate the machine to move the same stone is easy. But the nature of the work, the operating principles of this approach, the effort involved to arrive at this state, are said to be complex.

Another important reason we say the first approach, one that anyone can readily understand and instinctively gravitate to, is low level, is that there is a very low upper limit on what can be accomplished using that approach. You can never go to the moon that way; whereas with the second approach, the upper limit of things you can achieve with that is much higher.

In terms of martial art, if the effectiveness (“can I win?”) of our art relies mostly on speed and strength, that even a tiny drop-off means we will lose to all our peers (eg. see Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. in boxing), then the limit of our art is we cannot beat anyone stronger, faster (younger) than us.  On the other hand, if the effectiveness of the skill does not depend as much on pure conditioning, but rather on things like sensitivity and clever manipulation of force, then we can beat someone who is stronger (within same order of magnitude).

If our art is all about unleashing the maximum amount of force possible to destroy any obstacle in the way (we don’t care what they are), then the limit is we may not last very long on the real battlefield. However, if one of the central tenants of our art is to avoiding any unnecessary expenditure of energy, then we can last longer, perhaps survive encounters with multiple opponents.

It is important to point out that in martial art at least, “high level” deosn’t mean our training is not physical.  In the end the design goal of every martial art is to make a person the best fighter he can be.  In some arts the approach is to make his movement as strong as possible.  In more advanced arts more emphasis is put on using the high level skill possible.

Ideally we want both:  physically we want our body to come as close to their theoretical limitations as possible; and in usage, be able to accomplish as much as possible utilizing its resources in the most skillful manner possible.

Here skill is the force multiplier: if you designed optimal lever-pulley-wheel mechanism for the specific task at hand, and you built you developed your body to its limit, now that same 500 pound push can move a 5,000 pound object. This is the ideal state we all want to achieve – high level execution of high level skill.

In real life applications, we cannot really separate skill from gongfu.  They are combined to form what we can call ability. In Chinese, when we talk about someone’s overall martial ability/prowese, we use the term wugong (武功).  So ability is a product of skill and gonfu.

This then means even if you’re studying a high level skill, if your gongfu is not good enough, you can be less effective than someone studying a lower level skill, but has very good gongfu in it.  For example, if Person P’s art is pistol shooting, but he’s a lousy shot, out of shape, and can’t even hit the target well in stationary situations, and Person K is the world’s fastest, best knife thrower, and a hardened combat veteran.  In this case Person P can easily lose to Person K in real life situations.

Another example is:  if Team A devotes much of time to advanced ball control skills, but neglect conditioning, and it meets up with Team B, though not as skilled, but can run faster and longer.  So that Team B can always get the ball before Team A.  Team A cannot win because it never gets a chance to apply its skills in the first place.

In today’s traditional martial art community at least, we have two common problems: on one hand people who practice higher level type skills don’t practice enough, and therefore don’t do well in real fights.  And on the other hand there are groups of people who train really hard, the type of skill they practice are very simple, but they can win in real competitions.

Most people, unless they are students of martial art, and used to think critically about it, will not realize what they are seeing is high level execution of low level skill beating low level execution of high level skill. This can cause them to doubt if high level skills ever worked (“can you really fight with Taiji?”), or confusing high level gongfu in low level skill with high level execution of high level skill (“I want to study internal martial art because it has the most powerful fa jins”).

We need to care about these distinctions because to reach our goal, we need to know what we’re doing:

If our goal is to get to Los Angeles from New York by car, we have to know where LA is, where we are, know how to read a map, know how the road system works, how to drive, etc.  Any lack of clarity on these things can prevent us from reaching the destination.   We cannot think “if I just put my foot on gas as long and hard as I can, I will automatically get there”.

Internal martial art training is very complex, there’s a lot to understand. If we’re not clear on what we’re doing, the harder we step on the gas (“bigger fajin, bigger than any opponent”), the further we may end up from our real goal (“how to use the least amount of necessary force to do everything”). We need to understanding what that high level execution of high level skill should be like, what type of skill and gongfu are involved in that, the training methods for acquiring those, and finally, “putting down a lot of gongfu” (effort), both physical and mental.

July 2009
    Mar »

%d bloggers like this: