Some Fundamentals… Archives

Stances

There’s an old legend that’s told in the kung fu world from the “old days.”  This story is probably apocryphal, and you know how it plays out:  some young kid comes to an old master and wants to learn kung fu/karate/<insert your martial art of choice here>.  Said old master, to test the boy’s resolve, tells the kid to stand in a horse stance until the length of an incense stick burns out.  This, depending on the story, can be anywhere from 3 minutes to 3 hours.  The kid struggles, in agonizing pain, and at the end of the incense stick’s burn, having proven his worth by not quitting, the old master nods in acceptance and the kid is taken in as his disciple.

Good story, and I’m sure we’ve all heard some version of this and thought about it while we went through our own agonizing stance training. To be honest, I was never a big fan of stance training.  At least not stance training for the sake of getting good at stances.  I know, I know, it’s a necessary process, it’s good for you, etc, etc.  Still, I always thought that I’d rather be doing 20 more pushups than 20 more seconds of stance training.  It took me a while to appreciate stance training.  But in the meanwhile, I always wondered what stance training was really about.  What are the purpose of stances?  Why are they emphasized so much in traditional martial arts?  Is training in it useful anymore, given what we know now from modern sports science and MMA training?  Is it really to “build up leg strength” and “build character”?

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“I know Kung Fu…”

Yes, I do know kung fu.  Several styles of kung fu actually.  Not that I’m that awesome at them – some are better than others but they all still need a lot of work.

But I do know of kung fu.  Started when I was 11, watching the 6 O’clock Sunday Night Movie and the Big Apple theater – all those Shaw Brothers movies.  And when I got older and started training for real, I started reading, and asking questions, and listening to stories.  Some stories that reinforced each other, other stories that totally contradicted themselves.  Out of almost 20 years of studying what I’d call martial arts history and martial arts lore, I think I can offer my take on a topic I feel I know well.  Mind you, it’ll be a distilled form, heavily spiced with my opinion and bias, but here it is anyway.

Kung Fu.  This label is attached to almost any martial art that comes from China. It is the generic name for literally hundreds of individual Chinese fighting arts.  Kung Fu is an umbrella term, and it’s actually not even the right word.  Kung Fu literally means “skilled gained through hard work and lots of effort/time” so you can have kung fu in cooking, in swimming, in painting, etc.  It’s a term that got popularized a couple of hundred years ago by Western travelers to China.  When European and American travelers went to see China in the 18th and 19th centuries and saw people running around kicking each other’s asses, they probably asked some local yokel what was going on and the yokel probably answered “oh, they have good fighting skills, have good kung fu, lots of kung fu!”  Anyway, the actual term for martial art in China is “wu-shu” which means “war skill” or “fighting skill”.  Nowadays the term “wushu” refers to the contemporary style created by the CCP and popularized by Jet Li and his contemporaries – a style that was systematized and standardized during the 50’s and 60’s by the Communist Party for lots of historical and sociological reasons.  We’ll come back to this later.

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Some starting points…

I sometimes get asked questions by friends or other people who know that I’ve done martial arts for many years.  Usually the questions relate to what the best art is, what they should do or how they can get started and the like.  I’ve decided to put together some of the answers I usually give into a single narrative.  The following is information that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the martial arts become familiar with before embarking on it.

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