The Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu

Recently I was following a discussion about Western versus Chinese student approaches to Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).  The premise was that from the perspective of a highly respected Chen Taiji teacher:

It’s harder for Western students to grasp a concept that’s inherent in the Chinese psyche and its culture. At times it seems impossible, as Western students try to interpret the concept on the basis of their own beliefs and interpretations. In approach and practice, Chinese students do, while Western students question. Chinese students go by feeling and sensing movement, while Western students are concerned with the mechanics, or kinetics, of movement.

Speaking as a Western CMA student, I’ve noted some cultural differences between myself and my teacher’s generation that could account for the observations made by Chen ZiQiang. However, I do not think these cultural differences are on the level of interpreting technical concepts within the martial art, but rather play a role in determining the kinds of people, Western and Chinese, who are drawn to CMA, and their different motives and perspectives in learning the art.

The most obvious distinction between Western and Chinese cultural experience of CMA is that for Westerners CMA is a foreign entity, a discipline routinely depicted in Western media and culture as mysterious, exotic, and esoteric.  In introducing and reintroducing Asian martial arts generally to the West, the media has typically sought to distinguish Asian martial arts from Western martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. The cultural context that depicts boxing and wrestling as relatively straightforward and intelligible physical endeavours seizes upon Japanese and Chinese martial arts as somehow being “more than” their Western counterparts.

Western audiences have been assisted in this interpretation by various spiritual and esoteric aspects of Asian martial arts, not to mention the mythic oral histories, performance-oriented demonstrations of skill and strength, and the absence of the kind of regulatory or competitive platform found in Western sports-oriented martial arts.

In other words, some degree of esotericism is built into Asian martial arts, yet this esotericism has in turn been exaggerated and made the raison d’etre of Asian martial arts for generations of Western audiences, and some proportion of Western students.

This is, I think, the first cultural difference between Chinese and Western students of CMA, and I have to admit it is prominent in my own relationship with the art I’ve practiced for more than half my life.

Why is it that I, and others like me, are so drawn to CMA but have no interest in Western boxing, or indeed in sports generally? For us boxing and sports feel like a known quantity, a domain where little counts beyond sheer physical skill. The domain of CMA is immediately appealing because it seems to promise at face value a blending of physical skill with other kinds of skills albeit ones that are only dimly perceived. The whole point of many demonstrations of skill in CMA is to show that there is something ‘unusual’ going on, that the demonstrator has strength or speed or power that somehow goes beyond what we would expect from a purely physical skill.

We expect a boxer to be able to hit hard, or a wrestler to be able to throw or pin people with ease. But CMA demonstrations typically hinge on a disparity between skill and appearance: the teacher who hits much harder than expected and with little apparent effort; the senior student who seems impossible to push or pull or otherwise move; the grandmaster who is able to move you around with ease, with a strength that is incommensurate with his apparent frailty.

None of these demonstrations are ‘obvious’ in their mechanics or physical logic, and they present a puzzle and then a goal that becomes irresistible for many Western students. Western students generally are drawn in and motivated by achieving these same skills or abilities for themselves, but such skills and abilities typically remain incomprehensible despite years of training.

The problem is twofold: firstly, the disparity between the ‘normal’ rigours of martial arts training that develops comprehensible physical skills, and the esoteric and intriguing skill-set of the teacher that remain beyond our understanding and our reach. It is not at all apparent how ordinary training can produce extraordinary results, and many students remain stuck, grappling with this apparent paradox.

For many students the disparity between training and the desired skill-set leaves them preoccupied with a goal they do not understand and do not know how to achieve. Assuming that the teacher is able and willing to actually teach these more advanced skills, they may nevertheless find that their students are so entranced by the idea of unusual power or superhuman skill that they fail to appreciate, understand, or properly commit to the more prosaic skills and fundamental physicality of basic training. The irony is that such students would develop much better skills if they focused on learning the art as though it had no esoteric or mysterious connotations whatsoever.

The second and perhaps more challenging aspect of this cultural problem is that a subset of these entranced Western students are the kinds of people who have no real interest in or affinity for sports and physical disciplines in the first place.  The esoteric appeal of CMA and the demonstration of skills that seem to depend on something other than sheer physical strength attract people who are implicitly poorly equipped to learn a martial art in the first place.

For me this part of the problem is personal: why is it that I have no interest in boxing, yet an overwhelming and enduring interest in CMA? Because CMA somehow promises more than boxing does.  From an early age, CMA seemed to draw upon more than raw physical talent, and so for someone quite lacking in raw physical talent CMA is an attractive proposition.  But the reality is that CMA is intensely physical, at least as much and perhaps more than boxing trained at the same level. The esotericism is a physical esotericism, built on hard training, strength, flexibility, and other fundamental physical attributes that can be developed, yet come more naturally to some of us than to others.

Returning to the original point, I suspect that for people raised in a Chinese culture, the esotericism and mysterious skills of CMA are less salient than the physical discipline required. It’s not that Chinese people generally are better suited to CMA, or that their psyches are somehow more attuned to CMA principles, but rather that those who – like me – are naturally unsuited to physical disciplines and lacking in raw talent are much less likely to be entranced and attracted by CMA. CMA to a person raised in a Chinese culture is more like boxing to a Westerner.  The analogy is not perfect, but cultural familiarity strips away much of the esoteric appeal that draws in Westerners like me.

In other words, the Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu, and through self-selection, teachers like Chen ZiQiang will encounter more over-analytical, questioning, missing-the-point Western students than they will Chinese.

The irony is that magnifying the impression of esoteric or mysterious skills prevents us from truly developing any significant skill.  The answers could be right in front of us, yet the sense of ‘something more’ prohibits us from recognising the real nature of the skills exhibited by our teachers.

Having trained a martial art for more than half my life with fundamentally the wrong attitude, I should probably be relieved to have nonetheless made some progress, rather than being disheartened by my lack of progress.  Perhaps a better attitude for people like me is to recognise from the outset that CMA is not a physically less demanding discipline, but a more demanding one; that whatever physical problems or lack of talent we face will not be compensated for by something esoteric within CMA; that ‘understanding’ CMA without doing the physical work will be as fruitless as ‘understanding’ boxing, weight lifting, or jogging without doing the physical work.

What I really need to understand is not how my teacher ‘mysteriously’ has so much power, but why I mysteriously have so little. My goal should not be to discover the esoteric logic at the heights of CMA, but to work out the overlooked question of why I have failed to fully embrace the most basic physical form and discipline.  I need to start looking at CMA not as a way to compensate for physical impediments, but as a context in which to challenge, identify, and remedy them.






8 thoughts on “The Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu

  1. Hi Zac!

    This is an interesting topic and one that I can relate to, not so much because martial arts and music are hobbies of mine, but because I’ve thought about this issue more generally.

    A few years ago when I began formal tutelage on how to play “rock/jazz-fusion electric guitar” I remember going through something similar. I would constantly frustrate myself and constantly seek answers that were never there. Progress was very slow and at times I became disheartened. I would regularly think of what kinds of questions I could ask my teacher and how I could explicitly articulate them in the hope that I would get the answers and then simply apply the answers like algorithms that would enable me to produce neo-classical/jazz-fusion “shred” guitar virtuosity!

    But all he ever did was subtly but surely scoff at my questions, expose me for my idealism and naivety and then make me play songs of his choosing. The main thing that I was ever told explicitly was that if I wanted to achieve my goals I simply had to play a lot of songs and put in the “man-hours” required! I could never muster the 8 man-hours a day that he used to put in himself but at one stage I did average 1 hour a day for about a year!

    For a period of almost a year I was also able to match this work rate in regards to my taekwondo training. When I reflect on how I conducted my learning of both TKD and guitar, the parallels were uncanny. For example, learning and performing a “hyung” (the Korean term for pattern or “kata” which is the Japanese term) was like learning a song. Learning individual techniques/combinations were like learning notes/phrases of a song/interval/scale. Free sparring was like improvisation. Step sparring and constrained sparring was like improvising to a specific backing track. Of course there were warm ups and stretches for fingers, wrists, arm, shoulder neck and back and finger strengthening exercises that I discovered. But the most uncanny and profound discovery I made was that I could dramatically increase the speed of my combinations by striking in accordance with a particular musical tempo/time-signature. The tempo just forced my arms and legs into position a lot faster and I used this to develop speed.

    But many things are inarticulable in both music, martial arts, sports or anything that requires skill and often the only way to learn those techniques is to physically practice them rather than to try and apply a rule that one has learned explicitly. In other words when one has received the basic instructions (e.g. “stand like this and put your arm here and your leg there”) one must fumble around until one stumbles upon the correct technique or nuance of a particular technique or positioning. This can only be achieved through consistent and regular practice (man-hours).

    The technical goals of sports, martial arts and music require very fine motor control and very nuanced positioning of relevant fingers/limbs/body-parts. This cannot be articulated. It is often not represented explicitly in our minds but instead is embodied in us. The only analytical/intellectual requirement is to “know” when one has found it.

    The classic examples are riding a bike, driving a manual car, and learning how to swim. Words cannot do justice to the physical nuances involved and thus asking for an exhaustive set of instructions and being able to deliver/explicate such instructions is beyond our mental capabilities (this is actually a big topic in the cognitive science/psychology and sports science literature where they talk about “skill acquisition” and “declarative vs procedural” knowledge/learning).

    Getting back to the points you raised, perhaps a major difference is that we in the west are very analytical and reductionist in our approach to learning and thinking whereas the chinese are mainly inclined towards the discipline and the practice itself. In other words we think about it too much (as you suggested) whereas they just do it!

    My naive impression of CMA was that somehow it was less physically intense due to some “non-physical/mysterious” thing that was doing most of the work or that it was more about leverage and positioning than ballistic exertion. But if indeed, as you have stated, that CMA is at least as intensely physical as boxing, then perhaps the distinction between western sport and CMA is less sharp, or at least there may be common paths towards success in all kinds of physical pursuits, whether it is sport, CMA or music.

    I think the idea of simply putting in the man-hours required, and as you suggest, not being overly-analytic about it is common to all disciplines that involve physical skills/techniques. That is, to unconsciously and gradually develop the skill rather than to try and consciously and constantly seek it (which inevitably leads more often to frustration too).

    There’s a quote from Michael Jordan (arguably the most successful and distinguished professional athlete in history) which I think is helpful:

    “I just played the sport because I loved it. And because of the work that I put into it, the next thing you know, success was kind of bestowed upon me without me actually chasing it. It just happened. I didn’t think I would ever be this successful”.

    • Thanks Matthew.
      I think there’s a level of analysis that is justified, though, when the basic physical aptitude is lacking. A teacher may know well how to perform the art correctly, but not know what exactly is wrong with students who don’t seem to be able to conform to the basics. I ask a lot of questions, and sometimes “just do it” is the right answer. However, other times “just do it” presumes too much: that I can “do it” even to a basically correct level. If your guitar wasn’t tuned correctly in the first place, the benefits of the “just do it” approach would be limited. Unfortunately there are so many subtle ways for a person to be out of tune, it may fall to the individual student to struggle and question for themselves until they can work out exactly what is going wrong.

      • As a student of philosophy I suppose I would regard any form of analysis of any topic as justified! Of course philosophy is much less physically taxing than say empirical science or brick laying, so for me this makes the choice of working from the comfort of my arm chair further justified.

        My guitar teacher was quite meticulous about my guitar being in tune and would always let me know if it was even slightly out of tune, though of course he had a better ear for pitch than I do.

        I imagine that if for whatever reason I could not tune my guitar then my problems and challenges would be something outside of the act of playing guitar or learning music. For example I may be tone deaf, I may have the wrong instrument, my tuning machinery may be damaged, or I might in some other way be musically challenged/disabled. No doubt it would be good to know whether such problems exist prior to dedicating years and dollars on what would be a lost cause.

        I guess if I was somehow musically challenged or musically disabled then it would have also been quite unscrupulous of my teacher to simply tell me to play or “just do it” while taking my money!

        • I wouldn’t blame my teachers for it though. Apart from the fact that they’ve never taken money for teaching us, I think it is unrealistic to expect them to diagnose what are most likely sub-clinical postural deficiencies. Besides, looking back, they gave plenty of indications that something wasn’t right: “don’t look down”, “relax your shoulders”, “straighten your back”. That I failed to heed the importance of these pointers is not their fault, and I don’t blame them for ultimately concluding that I just wasn’t able to significantly alter my habits.

          People with good posture tend not to know much about bad posture. It’s only because my posture is bad and I now understand how vital it is to my martial art that I’m able to utilise the information publicly available.

          Some of what I’m finding was told to me several years ago by a clinician (i can’t remember the discipline), in particular my internal shoulder rotation. However, I associated his advice with postural comfort only, not with other aspects of strength and coordination.

          All in all, the pleasure of finding an answer will probably overshadow the lost opportunities of the past, but regardless I don’t think I’ll regret the time and effort I’ve poured into the art. I hate to think how much worse off I would be if I had quit earlier on.

          • I am also of the view that students should take more responsibility for their difficulties or failures. I think we place an unrealistic burden on teachers in general and indeed we are starting to see the effects of this on the next generation of students who regard formal education as an act of purchasing a nominal qualification than actual practical knowledge. But virtuous teachers will resist taking the money (or at least make it known to their disinterested or “challenged” students that it is all they are doing).

            The fact that you have come to realise that the issues with posture hindered your progress is obviously a good thing and is in an of itself an instance of progress. Presumably you will now place a bit more focus on this aspect as you continue to train.

            The only significant “lost opportunity of the past” is perhaps time. That is, it took you longer than you may have initially hoped to come this far (or at least to know better about how posture plays a crucial role). But all in all these are important and necessary lessons to be learned.

            So I don’t see these kinds of things as “failures”, that it took you or I or anyone else X + n amount of years to reach this point when it “should” have been just X amount of years. I see it as an important step and a positive one and besides, you can’t get too hung up on the fact that it is taking you longer than you hoped to get to this point. Getting too hung up on it makes people give up which is in a sense a much worse outcome than confronting and trying to overcome a hurdle.

            So I would agree that the pleasure of finding these types of answers will overshadow the frustrations of the past. But what is also at least equally as important is that this will also be inspiration for you to overcome future frustrations which are inevitable when it comes to these things. If you can see the positive in overcoming current frustrations then you ought to know there is a positive awaiting future frustrations.

            Just in response to your comment about the clinician who advised you – perhaps it would help in future to focus more on the functional goals than experiential goals such as comfort (though both are often related). I think this is quite important when it comes to performing physically demanding tasks like martial arts or exercise where the goals are more to do with function.

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