Gongfu is similar to the education system we already know. First you go to primary school, then to middle school, high school and then to university. For some a certain level of education is enough, others go even further and get their PhD or start teaching and become professors. There’s people who study faster and others who are slower, but without having gone to primary school, no one goes to high school and without finishing that you won’t go on to get your degree. In each level you learn things that will be important to continue studying on the next level – or at least this is how it should be.
This is why it’s up to t he teachers – on all levels – to prepare the students for the next level. They shouldn’t waste the students’ time, but try to show them the way to good gongfu in a useful and effective manner. But it’s also the duty of the student to think about what he learned, train diligently and not waste his or his teachers’ time. Therefore it’s important that both – teacher and student – have the right attitude towards gongfu training. Now, what is a suitable mindset for training gongfu?
In Chinese there is an idiom: In gongfu you shouldn’t be like the horse, but also not like the bird. The horse is a workaholic, it works and works till its’ body is ruined and can’t be used for anything anymore. We shouldn’t harm or destroy our body in gongfu. Gongfu should develop a healthy body and help to keep it healthy. This is why we should always keep in mind that our health is the most important while training. The second part of the idiom says, we shouldn’t try to fly like a bird. When training gongfu we shouldn’t dream of things that are impossible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set high goals, but that these goals shouldn’t be based on dreams and fantasies that we attained through movies and legends (or dubious videos on the Internet).
Every person has his own goals and expectations that he wants to achieve through training in gongfu. Many just do it for health or purely as sports, others see it as a hobby and few go even further and integrate it into their daily life or even want to preserve it and pass it on. Many are satisfied just having learned some exotic sport and a hand full of nice looking forms. However it takes a good teacher (or teachers), lots of hard work and a systematic approach to call what you studied traditional or as it is often called in China real gongfu (真功夫 zhen gongfu).
Let’s take Tanglang Quan as an example. What could a good education system in Tanglang Quan look like? Tanglang Quan is a style with lots of theories and principles on which the techniques are based on. Varying energies and strategies are used to obtain an optimal result.
Without knowledge of the theories of Tanglang Quan, what we train is only distantly related to real Tanglang Quan. Its’ outward appearance may be similar, but when you look at it more closely or even feel it in applications it’s not the same. The basic foundation is missing. In Chinese we call the practice of a style without this foundation 画拳 (hua quan – hua means to draw) or 描拳 (miao quan – miao means to imitate, but also to put on make up). It means that the practitioner is only imitating the outward appearance, the movement themselves are not of or of the wrong substance. Also on tournaments the jury should pay attention exactly these points and not to the “beauty” of the form. An experienced juror sees when a form is just “drawn”.
As a result one should have first studied the basics before moving on to training real forms. In Tanglang Quan the Basics include the 12 keywords, 5 principles, 7 long and 8 short, 8 hard and 12 soft as well as the 8 stances. These are mostly abstract concepts that can’t be trained by themselves. Typically one starts with the 8 stances and in many families with the 12 roads of Tantui. These already include some of the above mentioned basics. It’s the teachers responsibility to tell the student about those while training them. There also several techniques to each of the basics which can be trained alone and with a partner. As an example we could take the first hard which is called 泰山压顶 (tai shan ya ding – mount tai pushes on top). Under this concept we unite various techniques like 劈拳 (pi quan – splitting fist) or 崩拳 (crushing fist) which can nicely be trained by themselves. The teacher should also tell the student which keywords, principles, energies are to be used with a specific technique and application.
Once you have learned the basics and understood them thoroughly, you know how to use what kind of energy in which technique and you suddenly start to understand your gongfu. Suddenly techniques work a lot better in applications, once you start using the right principles. Now one can go on to study the forms of the style. Each form has its’ own kind of energies and strategies. The teacher should explain to the student what the form is really about, so that the student won’t just “imitate” the form but really fight it.
If you study forms without the knowing the basics though, you’re not only just „drawing“ your forms, but also wasting your time, as what you don’t really know a form but just its’ outward appearance similar to a dance. Maybe some of the techniques even work, cause you use a lot of muscle power or let your opponent do exactly what you require him to do for the technique to work. But on the way to real gongfu you’re still not one step further. So we have to prop our forms on the basics of the style, like house being built on a good foundation. Otherwise they’ll be empty and fall apart after the slightest impact.
Forms are only one part of many in gongfu. They are like dictionaries for techniques and pose suggestions towards combinations and strategies for a fight situation. However, a style can’t be reduced to its’ forms, as the essence of the style doesn’t lie in the forms by themselves, but in the foundations they are grounded on. Good gongfu is not knowing many forms, but really understanding the forms – even if they are few – that one knows. To know which energies are used where and how the techniques should be applied in order to be effective. A good traditional form follows the principle of 不用不练 (Bu Yong Bu Lian – if it’s not applicable/useful, don’t train it).
Hence my appeal to all gongfu practitioners: If you don’t just want to practice a sport for health purposes, but train real traditional gongfu, stop collecting forms and belts, don’t waste your time with “imitating” and start training the basics, theories and principles of your respective styles. When you have mastered these, you have real gongfu and any form will be learned in no time, cause the basics are always the same.