Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Amsterdam competition

Some of Wu Tan's students went to an annual traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Amsterdam. The competition is solely based on hand forms and weapon forms. I have to say it is not easy to perform in front of a big group of audiences, as nerves are the biggest obstacles for such performances. Our group did extremely well for they are mostly considered inexperienced competitors. Their forms are well executed and almost without mistakes. I couldn't do it better that is for sure. But as a Hong kong Chinese doing Taiwanese KungFu, I have noticed very interesting differences in the approach of KungFu during the competition.

Before I continue, I want to clearify that it is not my intention to offend any other KungFu styles nor people, especially practicioners, students and teachers. As much we are all KungFu brothers and sisters around the world promoting the good art of Kungfu. To dismiss differences would be the same as trying to respect male and female identity without acknowledging their differences. It is not only the styles that I am trying to compare, but also the training mentality and methodology due to the location where the art have develloped. My remarks are that of an idiot, an absolute beginner who doesn't know better. However, is therefor an exiting time for people like me, the beginners. As not knowing better means I have to look harder to discover and there is so much to be discovered.

OK... here are my observations:

The first thing I have noticed was this: How come there are differences between Wushu, Southern styles (Hong Kong) and Taiwanese KungFu? What I keep seeing as the identification of these styles are:

1) Wushu: acrobatic, fast, beautiful, lots of jumps and light bendy weapons (changed by the communist regime).
2) Southern styles KungFu: Hard, fast but brutal, not beautiful, unnatural and street effective (Hong Kong's way of life).
3) Taiwanese KungFu: Original Kung Fu that is not changed by the communist regime and focused on softness, agility, finesse, body alignment and soft chi power.

So far these basic observation. Most of the KungFu practitioners will have noticed the same. When taking these information to the form competition like the one in Amsterdam, I believe it is a very difficult thing to judge good Kung Fu based on all those differences.

Wushu: I love watching modern Wushu, it is pure spectacle. The athletic grace of the performers, the beauty of the moves, the speed and entertainment value. But take away the grace, the acrobacy, the accuracy, what is left over of modern wushu? Then my uncle's words comes to my mind: "Fa Kuen Sauw Theu" (flower fist thin legs), which means looks beautiful, but useless. My uncle didn't use these words to comment on wushu, actually, I bet he is a wushu fan too. But I cannot see any person using modern wushu to fight against my uncle. All I can say is, if that person wins, it surely won't be by wushu.
No, my uncle uses these words to express the bad quality of a practisioner who merely does forms to be pretty, without spending enough time to train jibeng gong (basics). Forms are only dictionaries, one has to learn the alphabet, the reading and writing before embarking on poetry. Most of us are learning forms as in reading aloud from the dictionary, without knowing the weight and usage of every word (moves) and without the skills and conditioning needed to use these words and make it into poetry (to make the form yours* *quote from teacher Mike).
However, modern Wushu is also a populist art in my eyes. It is the spectacle, we expect to see incredible jumps, high kicks, butterfly kicks, in short.... it is an entertaining art. This too, influences the audiences when observing a competition, the performer does a spin in the air and comes back with a split on the ground whilst the arms are posed as a classic warrior does many good for the audiences.... and the points. My question is: Fantastic to watch... but is it true KungFu?).

Southern KungFu:
As some of my family are Choi Lee Fut stylists, and having experience with audiences from Hong Kong, I believe if the judges are Southern stylists, the favour would go to "focus, intention and muscle power". The reason for places like Hong Kong to devellop such a hard style mentality is an understandable thing. Hong Kong has never been a place of calm. It has always been a place of flux, changes, survival and uncertainty. The Hong Kong triads are well known for its brutality. Capitalism is everything (though less after the handover) and within that environtment, children are pushed to be "seng ti!", cantonese expression for "get smarter!". Street smart of course, because if you don't, you won't survive. Hong Kong is all about trends and the faster you can follow, the better. It is a stressful environtment. Learning KungFu is not a matter of looking good or even moving natural, it is about be able to defend yourself (if the intention is right) or basically be the strongest.
Within that mentality, KungFu is effective in the eye of a Hong Kong Chinese only when it is useful, but it has to be quick to learn as well. As Hong Kong Chinese practise "time is money", Southern styles are suitable for their needs. Of course Hong Kong Chinese are aware of the true mastery of soft styles like Tai Chi Chuan, just like the movie KungFu Hustle, where Tai Chi was seen as one of the supreme styles. The truth is, a lot of the soft chi power in KungFu has been lost in Hong Kong. And the Southern styles are at best using a soft-hard chi combination to cultivate their chi. Even so, it is only comparible with Fajing from Chen Tai Chi, which is known for its exploding power. But the invisible, subtle, soft but extreme powerful chi is hard to find in a place where speed, trend and money is everything in life.

Taiwanese KungFu:
Although I have never been to Taiwan, I have some Taiwanese friends, what struck me is that they are much calmer than the Chinese friends from Hong Kong. There is more time spent on the quality of life, the appreciation of small things...
The Taiwanese culture as seems are also not changed by the communist regime. And it is within these two elements, that the KungFu has an important place to be cultivated. Not only do the Taiwanese have the original source of KungFu, but the mentality and the environtment are suitable to keep the quality training right. As one of the most important training method is relaxation of the shoulders and in order to train that, one has to embrace softness. It is however difficult for me and some of my KungFu brothers/sisters to understand the combination of being relaxed, yet being present. By training a long period of time in relaxation, a student risks to forget that a fighting form is in fact... a fighting form. Thus, the hardest thing for a student is to understand that there is a different between training methodology and the attitude when doing a competition or performance.
In training, one has to train getting rid of bad habits and cultivate good ones. In competion or demonstrations, one has to CONVINCE. It is here where the confusion starts. Learning KungFu is not only a physical matter, but also a mental training. A big mistake we often do is to copy a move or a philosophy of a teacher and take our own (limited) interpretation as the only truth. I see it when fellow-students are trying to teach eachother, unlike the teacher, who observes and reads the intention of the student in many ways, the student who tries to correct only sees it in one way without reading the situation properly. So the same "understanding the different approaches" mentality should be applied when doing form competition: Should we perform the way we practise? Of course it has to be relaxed and not dead, but would it convinced the audiences and the judges to fear you? When I watch teacher Mike performing forms from the external styles, I feel not just impressed but actually feel: it is fearsome. Same with my uncle, I rarely see him doing a move, but when he does, you know your distance.
So what happened if the judges are Southern stylists who only read power through intention and fire in a form, but the student performer takes his habit of training with relaxation in the form to the competion? Yes, it is without mistakes, yes it is graceful, but is it fearsome or convincing as a warrior?

Again, it is not my intention to offend anyone or styles. Rather, I believe part of the training is to understand different approaches as well as understanding weaknesses and strength. My observation might seem for you to be all over the place, but as I have clearly stated: It all happened on that one day of videoing the competion. I have so many questions, both about the styles, about the students, about the teachers and judges.

Summary of questions I have on watching the competition:

Towards judging:
1) How do you judge different styles?
2) What about stamina and body allignment (especially the knees and feet) Are these taken into account?
3) Can teachers of the competitors be judges (without disrespect)?

Towards KungFu brothers and sisters:
1) Should one perform a form at all if the body isn't ready for it and lacked the important basics such as allignment, strecthing, structure, finesse, power, stamina?
2) Is training the same as competition and performance? Understanding this is understanding how to avoid thinking in a rigid way.
3) What are the positive elements of other styles and are there any similarities? e.g. Choi Lee Fut uses Northen Long Fist as their armwork for real fighting, whereas in China, Long Fist is seen as a preperation for body structure and power generation. However, for me, watching Choi Lee Fut stylists perform helps me to understand my Longfist. One thing opens up the other.... 
If I am too yang in my forms, what can I do? Look at how Wushu people approach their movement and add that little which is necessary to your movement....

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