Our Philosophy

The broad spectrum of Chinese martial arts is like a rich tapestry woven from an enormous collection of different fighting systems and schools. Each fighting system has been influenced by a set of unique circumstances from the period of its birth. These systems continually evolved over many centuries. China’s long history of internal warfare brought about successions of dynasties that shaped its culture and society. The three great religions or philosophies of China – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, influenced not only the court and its people’s lives, but also the thinking behind the creation and development of each martial art system. The strong and efficient systems survived and flourished. The superfluous and ineffective were consigned to the redundant pages of antiquity.

Each martial art school or style, whether it specialises in grappling, wrestling, throwing, kicking, or fist and palm techniques, or uses a mix of these, is nothing more than people’s interpretation of fighting skills crucial for survival or dominance over an opponent. No matter how different each of these styles or systems may appear, if they are to be effective, they cannot escape from the Way or the Dao. Just as one river may appear to be different from another, the water within each cannot help but find its own level and eventually flow to the sea. Indeed, the two things that set a martial art apart from what is simply fighting are, firstly, a martial art is conceived on a philosophical basis and, secondly, every martial art shares a common denominator – skills that are intended for a smaller or weaker person to overcome a physically stronger person. If a “style” or “system”, whatever one chooses to call it, relies more on physical size and brute force to succeed, then it is best to just pump steroids. Such a system will be useless to people that are smaller or weaker by nature. A good martial art system is therefore one that can benefit any person no matter their particular stature. Therefore, a system’s philosophy must lend itself to the laws of nature in order to answer how can a soft force overcome a hard force? The basis for answering this question should be the core of any martial arts style. A martial arts student that is true to this philosophy will follow the Way or the Dao ().

A good martial art follows the Way or the Dao. It utilises the natural laws of motion so that techniques flow with the natural motion of the body. There is no unnatural straining of the body, jarring of the joints, nor over-stretching of the posture. The body should be balanced regardless of its movement. The qi () is controlled and smooth, directed by the a calm and undisturbed mind, yi (), manifesting the refined essence, jing () and expressing the spirit shen (). In being at one with these principles, defence, attack and counter-attack are no longer technical but instinctive. Thus there is no “thinking”. The Dao dictates that the weak shall overcome the strong, yield and you shall overcome. When you yield like water, you can overcome an opponent many times stronger than you, just as water can bring down a mountain. Water finds its own level. It is the path of least resistance.

A good martial art promotes a healthy body and a healthy mind. Contradict these principles and the consequences can include jarring of the joints and blockage of qi. This can lead to improper functions of the internal organs and interfere with the body’s hormonal and enzyme systems. These symptoms are prevalent in people who practise harder martial arts that rely heavily on muscular exertions of strength instead of internal strength. Even many styles of martial arts that claim to have their own internal systems are merely practising what is called hard qigong.

The three important fundamentals often attributed to the Tai Chi Quan Classics, posture, relaxation and issuing of jing, should without exception apply to any martial art. These principles are absolutely essential to any system, regardless of whether it is labelled as being an internal or external style. Without correct posture, the relationships between sinew, muscle, bone, tendon, intended movement, mechanical motion, inertia, gravity, acceleration, speed, etc will not be properly coordinated. Without relaxation, speed and acceleration cannot manifest. This is because the mind is not calm enough to be at one with the opponent. A calm mind is similar to calm waters in a pond being able to reflect the image of the moon. If the waters are not calm, then the reflection of the moon will be disturbed. Without correct posture and relaxation no amount of forced physical brutal strength can generate speed, accuracy, fluidity and most important of all – the ability to change. When the yi is disturbed by other considerations and motivations it is not free but rather encumbered. It is then a heavy mind not light and fluid. The qi issued by such a mind is unstable and disobedient. The ability to change is therefore impeded.

My Sifu, Li Iu Ling, learnt kung fu from three of the great masters from China of their time.  Throughout his tutelage in Choy Lee Fut, Lohan and Tai Chi, and subsequently in the course of his many interactions with his peers in other styles, one common theme was evident: great masters follow the Dao, regardless of personal preference of technique. Methods may be different on the surface but the essence is Dao.

In each of his mentors, my Sifu saw the manifestation of hard and soft in each other. The origin of the hard comes from the soft, just as the soft is born of the hard. The two are not mutually exclusive, but rather complements of each other. Choy Lee Fut is a very good example of this. The populist image of Choy Lee Fut is a fast, long-range, hard style with circular strikes being the predominant weapon of choice. Yet, at the highest form of Choy Lee Fut, that which my Sifu learnt from his Sifu Great Grand Master Chan Yiu Chi, there is little reliance on hard long-range techniques. It is fluid and “softer” than its stereotyped image. It is faster and ever-changing, using just as many short-range strikes that originate from all directions and random body postures. Great Grand Master Yang Zheng-fu taught the fighting application of Yang Tai Chi to only a few of his disciples. These applications are fast, fluid, and unpredictable. Great Grand Master Sun Yu-feng, although popularly known for his powerful physique, used Lohan chin-na methods that required little force. His throwing techniques were deceptively soft although his strikes were like iron.

In each of these three great systems, “softness” is the origin of speed, power, unpredictability, and the ability to change at any instance. Yet softness is not softness per se, for it is not softness as in a fluff of cotton wool, rather it is a ball of cotton wool that holds within it the energy of the universe. Softness is pliable, it is light, it yields, and it is deceptive in its flight. It has the qi at its core that binds it together where it explodes out to the intended target as a concentration of energy so compact that it penetrates like a steel projectile.

Every traditional Chinese martial art prides itself on having the hard-soft duality as its core philosophy. This is because every tradition of Chinese martial art recognises that the epitome of a martial art is when one is able to issue hard and soft at will. However, in reality this core philosophy is often tainted or modified by a practitioner’s personal experience and interpretation of the hard-soft philosophy. Although martial arts aspire to be at one with the Dao, even great systems are only as great as the person understanding it, practising it and applying it. Knowledge without diligent and intelligent training is ultimately frivolous knowledge without depth. Knowledge that cannot be applied is wasted effort. The old saying “practicing the wu ()without practicing the gung, () until you are old is all emptiness” rings true.

Li Iu Ling’s kung fu has no hard blocks, no posturing side-kicks, no yelling, no grand-standing fearsome poses, and no wild swings. Such actions denigrate the core essence of real kung fu. Yet when Sifu would strike he was so fast and yet so elegant. It was almost like part Bolshoi ballet and part Usain Bolt. Yet none of this is due to some magical, mystical secret that only a master knows and would only reveal at his pleasure to disciples willing to die for him. These so-called “secrets” are secrets only because instructors like to create an air of all-knowing mystique about themselves and the illusion that their level of skills or attainment is always beyond the reach of ordinary students except for the most deservingly loyal and ardent followers. The more “secrets” there are, the more “products” there are to sell. The truth is there are really no secrets. All things can be explained. Each level of skill when understood and mastered, provides the platform for the next stage of one’s development.  The way to acquiring the highest kung fu is found in mastering the foundation level to the depth one needs for profound understanding. Learning one hundred forms and being able to memorise all these forms boils down to just one thing – a remarkable but useless memory for a dead man’s choreography. Unfortunately, the holy grail for many students seems to be to learn the most fanciful and most “advanced” forms. Yet when they perform these sequences their lack of understanding is so obvious for the learned eye.

Slugging it out, hard against hard, physical against physical, hoping your reflexes are faster than your opponent’s, hoping you can take more punishment than your opponent is the mug’s game. That is the martial arts of the dumb. Too often, people who are critical of traditional kung fu have not had sufficient depth in their learning and understanding. We believe a good martial art, be it kung fu or whatever you wish to call it, is a complete “style” when it is free from ornamentation and is free in expression. Real Choy Lee Fut is one of the most complete traditional kung fu styles. Testimony to good kung fu is the many octogenarians who are in good health and enjoy life to a ripe old age due to proper practice of good martial arts. Fighting in a ring may be glorious to young people with excessive testosterone coursing through their veins. But think for one minute how many of them are healthy, robust octogenarians – very few, due to the impact on their bodies.

Our philosophy is to encourage the learning of good traditional kung fu through a rational, realistic and reasoned approach devoid of mystique, egotistical posturing, ornamentation or superstition. All things that confirm with the undeniable laws of nature are explainable and work naturally. Speed, skills, power, mental development and health are attainable not because of some secret manuscript but through proper understanding and honest practice. This is the Way of my Sifu, Li Iu Ling, and that of his teachers before him. It is called the Way of Wu Shu or Martial Art (武術), and the Way of Wu De or Martial Morality (武德). It might just be simply referred to as the way the universe works.

Written by Alan Yee.

January 2012.