2010 INTERVIEWS part 4

Interview 2010: part 4 - Continuing the Interview with Kevin Earle
Founder and Principal Instructor of Earle's Academy Ving Chun Kuen

Sifu Kevin, you have written that your friend said that the westerner will never master 'real' Kung-fu. Can you please tell us what is meant by 'real' kung-fu, and how can one 'Master' it?

Well, one could write a book about that interesting question. The term 'kung-fu' means time and effort applied in developing skill. So it implies hard work and patience; not just in training martial arts, but in developing any skill.

In the martial context 'kung-fu' is a generic term embracing all Chinese martial arts. So in that respect, in my opinion the meaning of 'real' Kung-fu is that meaning perceived by the disciple. Thus 'Kung-fu' may mean different things to different people. To one it may mean to become adept at Wing Chun; to others Taichi, Choy Gar, Hung Gar, White Crane, or Mantis, for example. To another it may mean Shaolin, or Chan Buddhism. Some say a 'real' Kung-fu student should be adept not only at empty hand forms but at up to eighteen different types of Chinese weapons.

So, all those methodologies could be called 'real' Kung-fu. Even so, whichever system of Kung-fu one chose to practise, I believe it would be incomplete if one dwelt on the martial aspects alone, for the Chinese martial arts embrace, or are embraced by, Chinese philosophy, art, and science; which includes Chinese medicine and healing methods, and chi kung.

Since most westerners will never have the opportunity to travel to China and immerse themselves fully in Chinese culture, and devote themselves to a lifetime study of Chinese philosophy, art, and science, then one might begin to understand my friends assertion.

Yet one can only embrace that which one is exposed to. So I repeat my opinion that 'real' Kung-fu is what the individual perceives it to be. Accepting that, then of course it is possible for a westerner to learn 'real' kung-fu. However, I believe it is a sad fact that most Kung-fu available today including the modern Wu-Shu only scratches at the surface of 'real' Kung-fu.

Even the majority of Chinese students only scratch the surface of their martial arts.

I believe that this is because the average person confuses kung-fu with karate and other forms of sport martial arts. Through movies and television there has developed a mistaken public perception, a certain expectation, of what kung-fu is. As a result modern teachers and students focus only on the fighting and sporting applications of their Kung-fu.

Of course this is only natural, since on the one hand it is the fighting and defensive skills which attract students to kung-fu in the first instance, while on the other hand teachers must attract students to keep their schools afloat financially.

Can you give us some clue as to what it is you refer to that lays beneath the surface of kung-fu?

Certainly I can share my opinion.There is a saying; "Lin kyun but lin gong, dou lou yat cheung hong", meaning that if you practise the forms but neglect the internal, in your old age your kung-fu will be empty. So understand that Chinese Kung-fu is not just about fighting, or sport, or exercise, or meditation; or taking lessons in philosophy, art, and science.

There is a force, an essence, that runs through them and binds them together. Kung-fu is action meditation. It is a philosophy of life. Life is living. Living is action. Therefore the essence of 'real' Chinese Kung-fu, it could be said, is a philosophy of action through meditation. Thus in Chinese culture it is said that skill - the 'real' Kung-fu skill - cannot be bought or sold as it involves the essence of life, and is priceless. Thus Kung-fu is not 'about' fighting, it is about 'not' fighting, since it involves the essence of life.

So perhaps your friend was right.

Perhaps. I should clarify here, that in answering your question my remarks are in no way meant to detract from the martial side of Kung-fu. The fighting skills are vitally important, as they are necessary to preserve the essence of life. Not only to preserve the essence of life, but to cultivate it. I simply wish to point out what I believe to be a fundamental difference between 'real' kung-fu and sports martial arts, or fighting for the sake of fighting. Naturally some may choose to disagree.

I think I see what you mean when you say a book could be written about the meaning of real kung-fu, Sifu Kevin.

Well, it's certainly an interesting question. I should add here, that one should consider the historical context, the era in which a Master trained. You see today we have universities where one can study philosophy, art, and science; so perhaps in the modern era a Kung-fu school is not the best place to study such subjects. Two thousand years ago there wasn't an ambulance on every corner, so skills like bone setting and wound healing, for example, were a necessary skill for practitioners of martial arts of the time. Today one could be sued or prosecuted for attempting to heal our students, so it is safer and more convenient for both parties, to just call an ambulance.

Furthermore, does one live during a period of war or peace? During a period of civil unrest or war the focus surely must be on raising an army quickly, providing warriors with weapons and the skills to handle them, not concerning them with art and science. Once conflicts have been resolved there are those who mature, who see beyond the superficial aspects of fighting and begin to explore the deeper forces of Kung-fu. War is a time for warriors. Peace is a time for scholars, for art, for science, for philosophy, and for understanding that Kung-fu is not just about fighting, but about longevity, health, and quality of life, for example. 

Such peaceful studies are personal journeys, whereas fighting or warfare is in the public eye, so to speak. This is, I believe, one reason why, in the olden times, many practitioners kept their skills secret, only practising within the family, or binding followers by the swearing of a blood oath, since public knowledge of ones martial abilities could easily get one killed. This has happened many times in Chinese history. So in the context of fighting skill, I, personally, think of Wing Chun as a concealed weapon.

Keeping such skill concealed requires loyalty. A kung-fu school is like a family. Social engineering has divided families. Loyalty, the most valuable asset a student could posses in his relationship with his teacher and his fellow students, is no longer valued. Some students study for a short time and then cut ties with their seniors, mistakenly believing they don't need them anymore. Then they demand loyalty from their followers in turn. How can they expect loyalty, when they themselves cannot give it? So we have a breakdown in society and in the family, and in the kung-fu family. I believe it is a combination of these things I have spoken about that make it difficult for one to learn real kung-fu.


As to 'Mastery'. It is my understanding that merely learning Kung-fu, becoming proficient at Kung-fu, winning a Kung-fu tournament, or beating someone in a fight does not mean that one has 'mastered' Kung-fu. Mastery is striving for excellence. It is a very personal journey. It is about self, and in Wing Chun I believe that to begin to understand mastery one needs to practise Siu Nim Tao everyday.

Sifu Kevin. If there is no longer any need for a kung-fu teacher to have knowledge of Chinese healing methods or the sciences, does that mean those things no longer have any relevance in kung-fu training?

Even in past generations not all kung-fu masters were doctors or bone setters. It was not a requirement, although some knowledge of those things could be, and can be, beneficial. Does Chinese medicine have any relevance to kung-fu? Yes. As to sciences - for the Wing Chun practitioner, a knowledge of geometry, physics, and physiology can be helpful. Is such knowledge necessary? No, I don't believe so. Is it relevant? Yes.

Sifu Kevin, you mentioned the 'essence' of Kung-fu, which brings me to a question that was raised about 'chi'. Some people say there is no such thing as chi. Others describe it as some mystical force. What can you tell us about chi?

'Chi' is the life force, the essence I have referred to. Apart from that I cannot tell you a great deal about chi. If I could I would be a great scientist. However I can tell you what I understand about chi, but for that you shall just have to wait for my book. (Ving Chun Kuen: The Art of Invincibility. ed.).

So until the release of your book chi must remain a mystical force?

Ha! Mystical? I have not experienced the mystical. I am a practical person, and I understand Wing Chun as a simple and practical art. To the practitioners of the mystical I would simply say, "show me". I will tell you I do not teach chi, for like I said, everyone has chi. I simply try to help others feel their chi, and how they might develop it during the practise of Siu Nim Tao. If one practises Siu Nim Tao thoughtfully everyday, they may become aware of their chi. Also there is a lot written about chi - however no matter how much one reads about chi, it is only through daily practise that one will begin to develop an understanding of it.

Can you use your chi to render someone unconscious without touching them?

If I can snatch a breath of air with my hand, I can do what you ask.

Well, the question comes from a student who read of a Kungfu master who could knock out a person ten feet away without touching them.

I have heard of this type of Kungfu master, and similar claims. Such feats are of the mystical phenonomen which no one has been able to demonstrate to me. I will say however that there are teachers and their students who have experienced such things. So for them such things are real, and I provide an explanation for their experiences in my book. Meanwhile my advice to all Wing Chun students is to spend ones time training with substance, not smoke and mirrors; for they are more likely to get attacked by real people than by ghosts.

On behalf of our members, I thank you for your time, Sifu Kevin.

Thank you.