The Art of Kung-Fu
The essence of Kung-Fu is not only about throwing punches and kicks. Actually, the essence of Kung-Fu is difficult to put into words. Indeed, Kung-Fu must be felt, practiced, intellectualized and shared. Above all, one must make Kung-Fu a part of his or her daily life to truly appreciate its depth, richness and authenticity.
Kung-Fu cannot be practiced once a week, and left at the kwoon (training hall) until next class to be fully appreciated. Doing so would simply make your Kung-Fu a weekly, routine activity among many others. Kung-Fu must go beyond “mere” crescent kicks, circular punches and deep stances learned in class. Yet, those tornado kicks, sweeps, forms and hammer fists are essential when following the Kung-Fu “path”. Indeed, techniques, forms, martial applications and meditation should be seen, above all, as Kung-Fu tools a martial artist uses on the path to a healthier, well-balanced way of life… one of the many treasures inherent to Kung-Fu.
Is Kung-Fu an Art?
I have always tried to determine whether Kung-Fu is an art. In other words, how can one explain why Kung-Fu is referred to as an art? Why are systems of combat known as martial “arts”?
An answer came to me as I listened to the words of a sculptor by the name of Jean-Louis Émond. He talked about his art in an eloquent, reflective, honest manner. In fact, I believe his words of wisdom could apply to any form of art. Kung-Fu, for instance. Or ballet, painting, music…
Forms: Sculpting Space
Émond’s reference to dance to describe his sculpture is perfectly on point when attempting to describe Kung-Fu as an art. He mentioned:
“Dance is like sculpture. You manoeuvre in a given space that you will be using. You are therefore sculpting space in a way. That is where choreography becomes important. It is a work of space.”
I see Kung-Fu forms (i.e. sets, katas) as one of the greatest forms of expression in martial arts. Defining forms as a work of space therefore appeals to me. Sculpting space. That is how Kung-Fu forms can be defined. Forms flow through space, the body moves in different, specific directions, led by the mind, the will. Stances, kicks, sweeps, punches and jumps are to the martial artist what scalpels, brushes and knives are to the sculptor. Tools used for self expression through art.
Movement itself is not that important. Sure, basic Kung-Fu principles need to be part of the form, such as fluidity, power, speed, agility, and proper body alignment. However, the intention of the movement and its martial application are what truly matter. Whether you throw a vertical fist, a palm strike or a spear hand, the intention and its goal are not different. Many argue and waste time arguing about the order of techniques in a form. All of that is secondary. As long as the movement, the technique abides by the principles of Kung-Fu, a martial artist is on the right path. As Émond correctly opined:
“The dancer’s every move is not that important. The intention truly matters. The dancer’s every movement, in regards to the choreography, has an intention, is a word, it means something.”
– and –
“A dancer who simply stands in the middle, without moving, and breathes, that is just as strong as a dancer who is about to do the split. […] The intensity and strength of that intention – that is what needs to prevail. That must be felt.”
Many have heard of legendary martial artist whose strength not only came from their physical ability, but also from their strong will and sharp mind in combat. Such strength can even be seen in stillness.
Movement in Stillness
Émond talked about the beauty of movement in stillness. As such, even though Kung-Fu forms are very powerful, energetic and comprehensive, they should not be “performed” with the same energy, or intention, from beginning to end. Like Émond, I appreciate stillness in a form. Indeed, every form has moments where one should pause, letting stillness take place, without loosing focus. This will result in movement in stillness. At that moment, stances should be rooted and strong. Like an oak in the middle of a windy storm. Same idea goes for the mind. Nothing else exists but stillness of the body and awareness of the mind.
Stillness is not about doing nothing. The goal is to show movement in a static position. Intention is crucial, mind is vital.
Jean-Louis Émond stated: “For me, sculpture, art is life”. For others, physics, ballet or plumbing is life. For me, Kung-Fu is – in part – part of my daily life. As such, I totally concur with Émond who reflected upon his art and mentioned: “What I do in my workshop follows me in life.” Those words echoed in my mind as I started writing about Kung-Fu and everyday life on The Shaolin Lawyer blog.
Indeed, Émond’s relationship to sculpture is identical to my way of life through Kung-Fu. What I do, learn, practice or teach during class follows me at work, home and in social activities. Kung-Fu and everyday life should not be dissociated to fully appreciate the essence of Kung-Fu. To carry Kung-Fu in our body and mind, one must realize that Kung-Fu training and daily life are closely related. One should have an impact upon the other in a positive manner to enable the practitioner to fully appreciate the essence and goal of Kung-Fu.
Forms passed down from generation to generation are jewels in the world of Kung-Fu. Flowing through space, sculpting space, expressing one’s intention…forms encompass all of that. We should therefore not see our freedom as being limited by forms. Rather, forms should be seen as a mean of self expression which, in itself, is freedom.
The Shaolin Lawyer