Monday, July 3, 2017

The myth of the "Classical Mess"

Earlier today I saw a friend post about training and it mentioned 'non-classical gong fu' and just like many of you, I was kind of confused what that meant.  If that term doesn't ring any bells for you, let me share where it originated from.

Referencing new gong fu against old or 'classical' gong fu started with Bruce Lee before his untimely death.  He used the term to denote his art from what he saw were the issues of the older styles of Gong Fu.

Bruce believed that the older styles, for example, fought from fixed stances or were stiff compared to his new art and didn't hesitate to make the comparison at any chance.

Now, when I was looking into what "non-classical gong fu" meant, I found this picture and it only deepened my questions.  Which styles fight from fixed stances?  Which styles believe stiffness is better than fast and fluid movements?  Are there really schools out there who truly believe that you are supposed to fight the exact way you practice a form?  In the end, is there any truth to Bruce's claim about 'classical' gong fu or was it a clever way to promote his art?

Let's start with the first claim about stances.  I've had the honor of training with excellent teachers in many styles and I've never once found a instructor who claims you have to fight from a gong bu/bow stance or a cat stance.  I've never once heard a teacher advocating that the second a fight begins, drop into a twisted stance and wait for the opponent to attack.  Each of the teachers I have trained with have ALWAYS viewed stances not as a start of end of fighting but as a transition between movements.  Let's use a Pu Bu stance, pictured here.  Have any of you ever met a real, legit teacher who has a strong free fighting record that teaches to start your attack from here?  Neither have I.  This stance is used for exercise and in application can be found in throws similar to a 'Fireman's Carry' from wrestling, albeit not at this depth or stretch.  What is pictured here is a full depth stance used to help with strength and stretching, it's not representative of a combat stance, if there was such a thing.

Bow stances are another super common stance, but again, I've never met a teacher who told me to jump forward into one the second I felt threatened.  Although I have had teachers who compare it to a strong shove or a double leg takedown position.  You see, stances are meant to increase leg strength in martial artists so they don't find themselves to weak to push through areas that they might collapse without the extra training.  Let's use the Bow stance example again.  It's important because if I was going to transition through a bow stance while doing a high version of a double leg, there is a chance my opponent could counter while 'sprawling' and drop all his weight onto my shoulders.  Without the added front leg strength, it's very possible that could collapse my movement, see?

Let's move onto the idea that the fact there styles existing is paralyzing to the arts.  Again, I don't see evidence of this in real legit teachers or anyone who has truly studied martial arts history.  Arts were constantly created and modified, even while Bruce was alive.  Let's use the art of Bagua for this example.  One teacher, Dong Hai Chuan, essentially created 8 different arts for his students, each different than his own.  As soon as those students started to share, the arts changed again with the introduction of Gao and Sun style Bagua, to name a limited few.  There was no animosity between the styles, which should exist if people truly were mentally paralyzed by their style.  Dong Hai Chuan would have been furious (if he was paralyzed by his style) that Sun Lu Tang or Gao Yi Sheng created their own versions of his art but no such anger is recorded anywhere.  The art of Xingyi also has a long history of changing and growing without any issues as well.  These art's are also incredibly fluid and responsive to change, another mark against the claim that the arts never evolved or grow.

The last and potentially most damning of the claims made is that the 'routines and stunts' trained will lead nowhere.  This might be true if there were teachers claiming that forms are literally interpretations of how fights play out but again, there are VERY few teachers who claim this and most of those can't actually prove they have ever been in a fight with their art.  All of the teachers that I have trained with have told me that forms are meant to develop fluid, connected power as well as train cardio for example, along with other great benefits.  The fight knowledge that comes from forms is the ideas for combinations given and the concept of how to link different moves while moving through complicated angles.  The biggest problem that can be found with Bruce's claim that the 'routines' are a problem is how after he started to become famous, he traveled back to his teacher, Ip Man, and offered to buy him an apartment in exchange for teaching him the 3rd Wing Chun form and allowing him to film it as well.  Why would a man who claims to dislike 'routines' be willing to pay for a training video of a form he never learned?  This claim is found in Ip Man's book on the Wooden Dummy set, another 'routine' with a ton of value that that still found in some JKD schools today.

So, many of you are wondering why Bruce made these claims.  Let me take a stab at it by reminding you to check the martial arts movies coming out at the time.  The martial movie genre at the time used all 3 of these stereotypes consistently and Western audiences wouldn't have had any other frame of reference to how real martial artists moved or how their art is trained, and I believe Bruce knew that as well.  I just came back from China again and while I was there, I didn't see any fixed stances or stiff movements, even from teachers who were teaching before Bruce made his claim.  Also, we can see the claim of stances and stiffness wasn't made before Bruce and each claim afterwards has just been mirroring what he said without providing any proof.

Let me share a video of my teacher as an example of how good teachers demonstrate fluidity without once referencing starting from a fixed stance or reliance on strict interpretations of form.

To show that this isn't a singular example, here are some other great videos that demonstrate real traditional teachers teaching combatives

These videos show teachers from different styles showing fluidity and the ability to react to an opponent without using fixed starting stances.  They show ideas pulled from forms on how to enter and strike and also how to counter those entries and I don't see anything related to a strict form interpreting mentality or any sort of constraint.  

My belief is that declaring that an art is 'Non-classical' is sharing that the art doesn't have any of the wonderful and unique characteristics present in true Gong Fu.  These methods are what inform each styles preferred way of attacking but aren't limiting in any way.  I've never met a good teacher who says "You can't punch that way, that way is from our arch rivals school and it's a sin!" The teachers I know say "Here is the art, use it however you have to so you are safe and make it home at night" and I generally believe that most teachers say the same.

The last objection some might raise is that the special Shen Fa or body method of each style is limiting which I also don't find to be true.  Each Shen Fa method is designed to amplify a certain way of moving, not in any way to restrict a martial artists ability to move as needed.  Xinyidao for example prefers to fight extremely close in and I've seen it used in bar fights with great effect.  This in no way means they lack the ability to reach out and touch an opponent from farther out, in fact, they are skilled in that range as well.  They just prefer closer in because they have developed a really powerful method of generating power from extremely close ranges.  How could preferring to use your strengths be considered limiting?  

I hope each of you thinks about the claim that Bruce made and really ask yourself if your teacher has ever told you to adopt a pre-fight stance like in the movies.  Have you ever seen videos of real street fights where two skilled fighters square off with one of them moving into a crane style position and the other dropping into a twisted snake style stance like the old Wuxia movies?  I haven't and I've been a bouncer for years.  On reflection, I think you will come to the same conclusion that I have, that the claim of a 'classical mess' isn't really founded on a true representation of  'classical' martial arts.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.