March 2003 (Part 2)


Shaolin Kungfu

Sifu Wong demonstrates a traditional kungfu form. Kungfu forms are beautiful to watch, but can they be used for fighting? Of course no, if you merely practice the forms for demonstration. Certainly yes, if you practice the forms for combat application.

Question 1

As a martial artist and philosopher, I am intrigued by your faith in the power of stances and traditional kung-fu. It is a great antithesis to the no-method belief instigated in the West by Bruce Lee.

— Ray, USA


There are many interesting differences between the East and the West. One difference concerns philosophy. In the West, philosophy comes before experience. A philosopher intellectualizes on a topic to form a philosophy, then looks at the real world to find examples to justify his philosophy.

For example, first you intellectualize that one will be a more effective martial artist if he does not use stances and traditional forms in combat. This is your philosophy. Then you look at martial artists sparring, and notice that those who use freestyle fighting often win. This is your experience. In this case your experience justifies your philosophy.

In the East the process is reversed. First there is real-life experience, not just of a few years as in your case, but of many centuries. From centuries of experience, some general patterns are noticed, and explanations are provided for the patterns. The explanations form the philosophy, and it comes after the experience.

This actually was the original meaning and purpose of philosophy, which is an explanation of truth. But for some reasons, in the West it has become an intellectualization on reality.

From actual experience of combat, combatants discovered that if they used stances and certain ways of fighting they would have a big advantage over those who fought haphazardly and without stances. These favored ways of fighting gradually stylized into traditional kungfu forms.

Hence my philosophy that using stances and traditional kungfu forms in sparring is superior to fighting haphazardly and without using stances, is based not on intellectualization or speculation, but on centuries of experiences of real fighting of past masters, as well as on the experiences of my teachers, myself and my students in combat.

Now we have two opposing philosophies. For want of better terms, we shall tentatively call them the modern combat philosophy which favours freestyle fighting, and the traditional philosophy which favours stances and traditional forms. Both these philosophies appear to be justified by real experiences.

However, if you examine them closely you may find some serious flaws in the modern combat philosophy. One flaw is that as the philosophy is made before experience, your choice of examples is selective and therefore prejudiced. In other words, wittingly or unwittingly you may have chosen only examples that justify your case and ignoring others that may not.

The second flaw is that the time span you use is short, and is during the period when kungfu is practiced as a sport rather than as a fighting art.

But the most serious flaw is that your comparison is invalid. Your comparison is not between those who fight freestyle and those who fight using stances and traditional forms. Your comparison is actually between those who fight freestyle and those who perform stances and traditional forms for demonstration but who do not know how to fight using them. In other words, the examples chosen to justify the modern philosophy are not valid because these people have never learnt how to use their stances and traditional forms to fight!

These flaws are irrelevant in the traditional philosophy, simply because here the philosophy comes after experience. In other words, it was precisely from observing throughout the centuries that combatants who used stances and traditional forms fought better than those who didn't, that the philosophy on the importance of stances and traditional forms was formulated.

Question 2

Bruce Lee's main principle stemmed from the idea that any style can be beaten because it has a structure and therefore a weakness. If your stances and forms constitute a particular “style” then according to the above statement it would be inferior to what Bruce Lee called “no-method”.


Bruce Lee's principle or philosophy was an opinion or a speculation, and not an explanation as Eastern philosophies are. His opinion here was both mistaken as well as internally untenable.

His philosophy was mistaken because there was no foundation or validity at all to postulate that a structure was a weakness, and therefore a style with a structure would be beaten. Other people could postulate the exact opposite, i.e. having a structure was a strong point and therefore could not be beaten.

Of course any style can be beaten; there is no such a thing as an invincible style. If there were, then there would not be any other styles; all martial artists would practice this invincible style.

But the reason for a style (any style) to be beaten is not because it has a structure. There are many and various reasons. Better speed, power and fighting experience are some of the reasons why one combatant beats another. The reasons can also be related to structure, for example the victor is more skillful in applying techniques provided by the structure of his style, or the structure is functional in contributing to combat efficiency.

Indeed, if all other things were equal, a style having an appropriate structure for combat is superior to another style without any structure. In other words, if you practice a martial art where you use ways of fighting which have been found effective by past masters, you will be more combat efficient than another person who fights at random. These preferred ways of fighting constitute the structure of that martial art, and in the case of kungfu, stances and traditional forms are an integral part of this structure.

This brings us to another point, that is Bruce Lee's principle as cited by you is internally untenable because his ways of fighting was a particular style of martial art (called Jeetkwondo) and it had a structure. Whenever Bruce Lee fought, he always did so according to the structure of his style, He focused on speed and power, his techniques were mainly kicks, and his footwork was generally bouncing about. Bruce Lee never fought haphazardly, which would be the case if he had no structure to follow. Bruce Lee used preferred methods, it was not “no-method”.

What you and many other people mean is not that “no-method” fighting is superior to a style that uses stances and traditional kungfu forms. What you and the others actually mean is that in today's situation, those who fight using punches and kicks and bounce about as Western Boxers and Kickboxers typically do, generally beat those who fight using stances and traditional kungfu forms. This is true. I would go even a step further. I would say that those who simply fight, even like children, will generally beat many (so-called) kungfu and wushu practitioners, including “masters”, who attempt to use stances and traditional kungfu forms!

Why? The answer is simple, though not many people may be aware of it. These many kungfu or wushu practitioners have never learnt how to use stances and traditional kungfu forms for combat, they only learn to use them for solo demonstration — what past masters referred to as “flowery fists and embroidery kicks”.

Let us take an analogy. You and your friend want to go from New York to New Jersey. Your friend has a most effective machine for this purpose — an automobile. You have no machines, only your two legs. Your friend may have a beautiful philosophy of how cars work, may have frequently and proudly shown his car to his friends, and he may know how to step on the accelerator and how to hold the steering wheel, but he does not know how to drive. Using his car he will never arrive, but you will.

What should your friend do? He can keep his car for exhibition purposes, and walk. Alternatively, as he already has a car, he can learn to drive. What should kungfu and wushu exponents who cannot use their kungfu and wushu to fight, do? They can keep their kungfu or wushu for demonstration purposes, and punch and kick widely and bounce about when they have to fight or spar.

Alternatively, as they already know stances and kungfu or wushu forms, they can learn to use them to fight. Obviously, finding instructors to teach you how to use kungfu or wushu to fight is much more difficult than finding instructors to teach you drive a car. We at Shaolin Wahnam are dedicated to this purpose. For those who are interested, studying our webpages on combat principles and applications is a useful first step.

Question 3

I started practicing “Lifting the Sky” and have found some pain on my back. I had some back problem years ago from playing tennis. Could this be the reason?

— Steven, Malaysia


In chi kung we differentiate two major types of pain — what we call “good pain” and “bad pain”. “Good pain” results when the energy generated from chi kung training attempts to break through blockages, or when toxic waste that is being cleared is not yet cleared from the body and is temporarily deposited at joints or certain parts of the body. “Good pain” is dull pain, even “pleasurable”, and the practitioner often knows that it is good for him. On the other hand, “bad pain” is severe, and is unpleasant. It results from injury, sickness or wrong training.

The pain you experience is likely to be “good pain”. It is an indication that you have been practicing “Lifting the Sky” correctly, and the resultant energy flow is working on your back problem inflicted years ago. The pain may become slightly more and more as chi, or energy, builds up for a break-through. Then the pain will disappear and your back problem will be over. Keep up and enjoy your practice.

Combat Sequence

Practicing combat sequences is an important way to prepare for free sparring. At the initial stage the combat patterns are pre-arranged. Gradually the control is released and the patterns become more free. Here Mogan and Chee Yong go over a pre-arranged combat sequence.

Question 4

I also encounter some breathing problem when I try breathing from my diaphragm. This did not happen when I breathe normally. Could you please advise?


Here it is “bad pain”, as a result of trying to breathe from your diaphragm, which is incorrect.

Many people may not understand that breathing in chi kung is quite different from breathing in conventional Western exercise. In conventional Western exercise, diaphragmatic breathing may be used to increase the volume of air taken in. But this is incorrect in chi kung. In chi kung, breathing is not just taking in and giving out air, it is taking in good energy and giving our bad energy. Chi kung breathing is generally gentle — the more gentle it is, the more powerful it can be! This may not make sense when viewed from the perspective of Western exercise. That is why an internal art master is gentle — in his breathing as well as in other aspects — yet very powerful.

Although in this case you have practiced incorrectly, the harm is not serious yet. The pain here is a warning. What you need to do is to perform “Lifting the Sky” with gentle, normal breathing. Don't worry about your diaphragm, and don't worry about how you breathe. Just breathe normally and gently, but make a point to check that you keep your mouth gently open when your breathe out.

After some time you may experience “good pain” instead of “bad pain”. It is not easy to describe the difference in words, but you can tell the difference from direct experience, just as it is not easy to describe the difference in taste between a good orange and a bad one, but when you eat it you will know the difference from direct experience.

Question 5

I am at present a pensioner of 56 and have taken up Tai Chi following the set of 24 steps


It is likely that what you practice is Tai Chi dance instead of Tai Chi Chuan. But in your situation, practicing Tai Chi dance is probably more suitable. And the 24-pattern set is better for your purpose than the longer ones of 48 patterns or 108 patterns. You will get more benefits if you follow my advice below.

Before you start to perform your 24-pattern, just stand upright and be totally relaxed. Check that you are upright and not leaning backward, and that there is no stress on your back at your waist. If you find that you are leaning backward, in which case your weight will be on your heels instead of over your whole feet, adjust yourself at your waist level, and not at your ankles. Generally this involves pushing your stomach in and your chest gently forward.

When you are upright and totally relaxed, just remain there for a few seconds or a minute or two thinking of nothing and doing nothing. This is “Entering Silence”, a very important aspect of Tai Chi Chuan which most Tai Chi practitioners neglect. If you have read in Tai Chi Chuan classics the expression “Taijii originates from Wuji”, this is one manifestation of the expression.

After enjoying the Wuji experience (where you stand upright, totally relaxed, thinking of nothing and doing nothing), begin your 24-pattern set. As you perform the set, don't worry about your breathing. Just let your breathing be natural. And don't worry about your forms. Just perform the forms and enjoy the movements.

If your forms are incorrect, this is not the time to correct them. Correct your forms after you have completed the set, whereby you only perform and correct the incorrect forms, and not other forms. For example, you may find that when you perform “Single Whip” your balance is awkward and your arms are not held properly. Correct the mistake and repeat the corrected forms many times. Only when you are satisfied with this form, do you move to correct other forms.

But when you are performing a set, even when you notice that some forms are incorrect, ignore the mistakes for the time being so that it will not interfere with the smooth flow of the set as a whole and your resultant appreciation of its flow. After you have completed the set, stand upright and be totally relaxed. Then enjoy the Wuji experience as before. This is “Taiji returns to Wuji”. As you progress, you may find yourself swaying gently while remaining at Wuji. This is the result of your internal energy flow.

If you practice daily for three years what I have described above, your friends may tell you that you are only 50.

Question 6

I found a book containing the 72 consummate arts of the Shaolin Temple, and found some hardening techniques like “Beating Art”, “Golden-Bell Cover Art”, “Iron Shirt Art” and “Iron Bull Art”. But when I want to practise them, I ask myself a question: What do they mean by "direct your qi to your abdomen and then gather it in a particular place so that it becomes hard and tough. Now beat it.”?


The “Seven Two Arts of Shaolin” is a classic which records advanced Shaolin qigong (chi kung) exercises. It was written in a very concise manner meant to remind initiated disciples what they had personally learnt from their masters. It was not meant as a teaching manual for beginners.

The instruction “direct your qi to your abdomen and then gather it in a particular place so that it becomes hard and tough. Now beat it” means exactly what it says. It did not explain how to direct qi or how to gather it in a particular place, because the readers to whom this instruction was meant, already knew how to do so. They learned how to do so personally from their master, and practiced it under his supervision. If they made a mistake or should any injury occur, their master would rectify it.

You should not practice such advanced arts on your own without a master's supervision, as you are likely to hurt yourself, often without your conscious knowing.

Free Sparring

Eventually practitioners progress from combat sequences to free sparring where no patterns are pre-arranged. In free sparring traditional kungfu forms are employed, otherwise it becomes haphazard fighting, defeating the purpose of kungfu training. Here Luis attacks with a typical kungfu kick, and Dan responds with a typical kungfu counter. Dan could respond correctly and spontaneously instead of resorting to haphazard fighting because he has undergone systematic training.

Question 7

I learned some qigong, but my teachers always taught me to relax my body. How can you make a part of your body strong and tough when you are relaxed?


There are many types of qigong. In most types of qigong the practitioners relax their body. In some types of qigong, especially martial art qigong, the practitioners may “toughen” their body, or certain parts of their body. Even in such cases, they should be relaxed although certain parts of their body may be “toughened”, but not tensed.

For those who never have any experience of such qigong training, it appears to be a contradiction. As you have said, how can one be relaxed yet strong and tough at the same time? The fact is you can, if you are properly trained. You can find many examples in internal art masters, such as genuine Shaolin masters and genuine Taijiquan masters.

There are two main categories of strength and toughness — soft and hard. A master can be relaxed and “soft”, yet very powerful and tough. The Shaolin arts of Cosmos Palm and Dragon Strength are two examples. A master with Dragon Strength may appear as if not using any strength — in fact he does not use any (mechanical) strength. If you touch his arms, you will find them soft like silk. If you spar with him, his seemingly gentle movements will bounce off your attacks. If he places his arm on your body and exert force, he can break your bones.

On the other hand, a master can be relaxed and “hard”, and very powerful and tough. The Shaolin arts of Iron Palm and Iron Bull are two examples. If you feel the body of a master with the Art of Iron Bull, you will find his body hard like that of a bull, but he is very relaxed. He does not have to tense his muscles to be powerful and tough. If you hit him with a stick, even when his muscles are totally relaxed, you will not hurt him but the stick will be broken into pieces. If he swings his arm at you, even when his arm is relaxed but it is hard if you have a chance to feel it during its swing, he will break your bones.

How can the soft arm of a master with Dragon Strength, and the hard arm of a master with Iron Bull Art be so powerful and tough when they as well as the muscles in their arms are relaxed? The answer is that they do not require tensed muscles to manifest their force. In fact if their muscles are tensed, their force would be affected. Dragon Strength makes use of flowing qi, whereas Iron Bull makes use of consolidated qi.

Question 8

I often see people practising qigong and when they practise they tighten muscles. Do you have to tighten your muscles?


Tightening muscles when practicing qigong is incorrect. This is a common mistake made by many people, including some masters, in martial art qigong. For example, in practicing the Iron Wire Set, which is an advanced and very powerful qigong exercise in Hoong Ka Kungfu, many practitioners tense their muscles. They can still develop much force, but they also cause much energy blockage.

Their mistake is due to their failing to understand that when energy is consolidated at their arms, for example, their arms are tough but the arm muscles are not tensed. The difference is qualitative but very subtle, and therefore can easily be overlooked or confused. When the Iron Wire Set is performed correctly with the muscles relaxed, the arms are very powerful because energy is consolidated there. When it is performed incorrectly with the muscles tensed, the arms are also powerful due to muscular tension.

When Iron Wire is performed correctly, it is qigong, and the power is internal. When it is performed incorrectly, it is isometric exercise, and the power is external. Here are two good ways to check whether you are performing qigong or isometric exercise. From the internal perspective, when you perform qigong while you feel you are powerful, you also feel relaxed and peaceful. When you perform isometric exercise, while you feel powerful, you also feel tensed and blocked, especially in your chest. From the external perspective, when you perform qigong, your arms are powerful but they are smooth and rounded. When you perform isometric exercise, your arms are powerful and they are muscular.

From my perspective as a qigong master and in my opinion, another common mistake of tightening muscles is frequently made by Karate practitioners, including some masters, in performing the Sanchin kata. The Sanchin is an advanced kata or set in many schools of Karate. It is derived from the San Zhan set of Wuzu (Five-Ancestor) Kungfu. “Sanchin” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “San Zhan”, and they mean “Three Battles”.

Many Karate practitioners perform the Sanchin not only with their muscles tensed but also with their face grimaced. This is very harmful as it causes a lot of energy blockage with far reaching consequences. Worse, the harm is insidious, i.e. the victims may not realize the harm.

San Zhan, as I learned it from the Wuzu patriarch Sifu Chee Kim Thong, is practiced in a totally relaxed and smooth manner, without tensing even a single muscle! The internal force generated is tremendous. When I sparred with my Siheng, Chee Boon Leong, the eldest son of my sifu, and who is very gentle and soft-spoken, he would just place one arm over my two arms, and I could not even lift up my arms, and he was totally relaxed!

It is pertinent to add that my comments here are given in good faith, and not meant to belittle some practitioners of Hoong Ka and of Karate who tighten their muscles in the training of qi or ki. Of course they may disagree and discard my comments as rubbish.

Tightening muscles in such training if carried on for a reasonable length of time can cause serious and insidious harm. Telltale symptoms are loss of luster in the eyes, darkening of the face, feeling choked and blocked, and becoming angry or aggressive for no apparent reasons. Often there is a deterioration of sexual urge and performance. Worse, such energy blockage weaken internal organs, especially the lungs and the kidneys, with far reaching consequences. For example, the victim may succumb to a viral attack which he could overcome in normal circumstances. Should you suspect that you might be a possible victim, a good remedial exercise is “Lifting the Sky”.



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