July 2003 Issue
A Classic Lesson - Literary Classics in Kung Fu
I shall never forget the day professor Hu Yuen Chou accepted me as his disciple. When fortune smiled on me that day in the 1970s and I had been deemed worthy to have the veil lifted from the secrets of kung-fu, professor Hu took me aside. "Anybody can be an ordinary martial arts instructor," he said. "But you have what it takes to be a great teacher, if you build your career properly."
"What do you mean?" I asked my master.
Professor Hu paused for a moment. His eyes had a far away look, as if he was remembering his own first youthful steps on the long journey to becoming a kung fu legend. Then he spoke.
"To build high, you must have a strong base, like a pyramid. A tree can be high too, but without the wide base of a pyramid it will blow down in a storm some day. However, the pyramid will survive all the storms and last an eternity.
"Your name is the same," he continued. "You can have lots of publicity and be temporarily known. However, a great instructor always has years of hard work, proper training and a broad knowledge of Asian history, culture and geography as his strong base. Like the pyramid."
Then professor Hu handed me a Chinese Classic to read entitled, The Journey to the West. On that day, with those words I began to build the foundation of my own "pyramid."
He later had me read two other great classics, The Water Margin and The Three Kingdoms. Reading these venerated works taught me a great deal about kung-fu.
Sadly, great-grandmaster Hu is no longer with us. So, it is up to me to pass along this valuable path of kung-fu knowledge. I highly recommend reading these great classics, as a way of connecting with the feel of Chinese culture and the birth of kung-fu and its techniques.
Journey to the West
Many Chinese children grow up hearing the remarkable tales of the "Monkey King" from The Journey to the West. These delightful stories not only entertain, but also explain the details of the monkey staff kung-fu techniques. There are other mystical characters, such as the Tang Priest (who is based on the historical figure who went to India - hence the title "Journey to the West" - to bring the sacred Buddhist Sutras back to China), Pig, the Sand Monks and countless other demons and devils. Each character has a different weapon and the fighting skills to go with it. Naturally, there are lots of contests where these weapons are used. The reader learns a great deal about kung-fu fighting.
The Water Margin
In The Water Margin, there are 108 heroes. From this novel we learn of the origin of "drunken" kung-fu. One of the heroes is the monk Lu Zhi Shen, who thoughtlessly went out and got drunk. When he returned to the monastery to sleep it off, the other monks wouldn't let him in. Buddhist monks, you see, are not supposed to go out and drink too much. In his efforts to get back in and go to bed, he fought more and more monks at the monastery's gate with his surprisingly effective drunken movements.
For the famous double axes techniques, you can read about Li Kui; for the twin spear there is the story of Shi Jun, who had nine dragons tattooed on his body. There are many heroes such as Lin Chong, the military chief instructor of a million soldiers; Wu Song, the tiger fighter hero; and many others to complete your knowledge of Chinese fighting arts.
The Three Kingdoms
The Three Kingdoms is one of the major novels in classical Chinese literature. The story is about the three states in ancient China at the end of the Han dynasty (202 B.C. - A.D. 220). This was a very unsettled period in history. One of the characters is General Kwan, also known as Guan Gong. This action-packed story tells about the general and his blood brothers. General Kwan is well-known in Chinese culture and is often seen on altars in Chinese business establishments with his unmistakable long weapon - the Kwan do.
Today, when we practice the southern style of Kwan do, the long handle broadsword, we understand the history and background of the weapon's form from The Three Kingdoms. The traditional Kwan do form has techniques like sharpen the knife, riding on the horse, and other movements that simulate General Kwan preparing for the war.
General Kwan's elderly blood brother was Lord Liu Bi. He eventually became king of one of the states and had his kingdom in the area of western China, which is today Si Chuan province. Lord Liu Bi's weapon of choice was the double sword. The second blood brother was Zhang Fei, who was famous for using the snake tongue spear. The youngest blood brother, Zhao Zi Long, was the red tassel spear expert. One of General Kwan's enemies was Lu Bu. He wrought havoc with the gik (Chinese halberd).
I highly recommend that all serious martial artists read these works. You can get them from the library or even from the Internet. After you read these books, you will truly understand Chinese culture and how it relates to traditional Chinese martial arts.