Uncle Righteousness

Patriarch Lai Chin Wah, or popularly known as Uncle Righteousness


Sigung Lai was a great fighter and Shaolin master. How was it that you only learned "flowery fists and embroidery kicks" from him? Were his more senior students (did he actually have any more advanced than you) also great fighters?

— Sifu Andrew Barnett, Chief Instructorm, Shaolin Wahnam Switzerland


There was no doubt my sifu, Sifu Lai Chin Wah, was a great fighter. His honourable nickname, Uncle Righteousness, by which he was better known in kungfu circles than his own name, was not just due to his sense of righteousness, but due to his frequent actual fighting to maintain righteousness.

The main reason why I learned only "flowery fists and embroidery kicks" from a great fighter despite being his most favourite disciple was the way kungfu was taught by all masters at this time.

As recent as a hundred and fifty years ago, about the time of Wong Fee Hoong and Huo Yuan Jia (late 1800s and early 1900s), kungfu was for fighting. People learned kungfu not for health, not for spiritual cultivation but to be able to fight well. And fighting was common then.

But soon kungfu deteriorated into "flowery fists and embroidery kicks". Apart from the introduction of firearm as well as law-abiding society, which made kungfu fighting obsolete, two events in kungfu history, which are not widely known, contributed to a rapid decline of kungfu combat efficiency.

One was rich men inviting kungfu masters to their family to teach their children, and the other was kungfu masters opening schools to the public. The common factor was that kungfu masters depended on students' fees for living.

Rich men's children did not make good kungfu students, and mass teaching resulted in poor standard. The result was that kungfu masters focused on teaching forms, which gave students a false sense of progress, rather than focusing on developing force and combat application, which were actually the pillars of kungfu training.

Hence, by the time I learned kungfu from Uncle Righteousness, teaching kungfu sets was the norm. There was no formal emphasis on force development and combat application. This is still the norm today, except for a later change which I shall presently describe.

Hence, as a general rule, today if someone boasts that he has learnt kungfu for 20 years from Chinese masters of established lineages in Hong Kong, Taiwan or any Southeast Asian countries or even in mainland China, we can safely conclude that he can only demonstrate beautiful kungfu forms in solo, what past masters referred to as "flowery fists and embroidery kicks".

About 50 years ago (about 1960s) Karate, Taekwondo and later Muay Thai became popular. Their focus was on free sparring. When kungfu practitioners sparred with these martial artists, the kungfu practitioners were rudely awaken to their combat inadequacy. Some enterprising kungfu masters, therefore, started adopting these other martial art techniques into their training. The result was what we have today -- using kungfu forms in solo demonstration but kick-boxing in sparring.

Meanwhile in mainland China, traditional kungfu was transformed to modern wushu, which is magnificent to watch but never meant for combat or spiritual cultivation. In their effort to bring back combat efficiency, wushu instructors also introduce kick-boxing into their combat training. The result was Sanda, which originally meant free sparring using kungfu forms but now it connotes Chinese Kick-Boxing.

Hence, the great majority of kungfu practitioners today fall into one of the following five categories:

  1. Traditional kungfu forms but no combat training.
  2. Traditional kungfu forms with kick-boxing for combat training.
  3. Modern wushu forms with no combat training.
  4. Sanda using kick-boxing for combat training, with wushu forms for solo demonstration
  5. Sanda using kick-boxing for combat training, without wushu forms for solo demonstration

Our school is a very rare minority, using traditional kungfu forms for combat training, but we place priority on enriching our daily life over beating other people in fighting. This, we believe, was what Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan were originally for.

To say that my classmates and I learned "flowery fists and embroidery kicks" from Uncle Righteousness was actually an over-statement. Although force training and combat application were not emphasized the way we now do in Shaolin Wahnam -- these were a legacy from my other sifu, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam -- relatively my classmates and I had more internal force and were more combat efficient than students from most other kungfu schools.

This, I believe, was due to two reasons. In his teaching, Uncle Righteousness placed much emphasis on stance training and picture-perfect form, which respectively gave us internal force and technical advantages, two favourable requisites for successful combat.

Secondly, because Uncle Righteousness was a great fighter himself, his fighting ability sort of rubbed onto us. Although we were not actually tested, as we then lived in a law-abiding society unlike Uncle Righteousness' time, my classmates, most of whom were senior to me in chronological age but not in kungfu age, were usually regarded as good fighters -- just because we were Uncle Righteousness' students.

Later I had a chance to test out my fighting ability with other people, both kungfu practitioners as well as other martial artists. I actually went round to search for people to fight with -- in a friendly and respectful way. This was before I learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam.

Although I did not win every match, I was never beaten. This was due not so much to my fighting ability but to my being smart. I chose to fight those whom I had confidence in beating. In this way I built my fighting experience and fighting ability. Herein lay the seeds of our scholar-warrior concept of victory before actual combat and systematic progress in our 30-opponent programme.

My training with Sifu Ho Fatt Nam brought my internal force and combat efficiency to a totally new and incredible level. When I sparred with others, including kungfu masters and masters of other styles, I could beat them comfortably. At the time I was learning from Uncle Righteousness, there were classmates who were more advanced than me in kungfu performance, but later by their own admission as well as actual sparring, I surpassed them.

The above is taken from Question 1 January 2012 Part 1 of the Selection of Questions and Answers.


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