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Bridging the Cultural Gap between East and West

By Adam Hsu

Chinese martial art is often referred to as kung fu, a generalized term for any skill attained through hard work over a long period of time. This term is associated with the martial arts of China because years of dedicated practice are required to reach a level of mastery. Like other cultural traditions such as dance or literature, kung fu is a mature art that represents the accumulated knowledge and experience of generations of practitioners.

Although the East and West are less isolated from one another today, the people and culture of China remain a mystery to most Westerners. The complex character of the Chinese people and the ancient philosophy that underlies the culture are woven into the fabric of traditional kung fu. Thus, learning kung fu can help to bridge the cultural gap between East and West.

However, learning kung fu is not an easy task. The cultural context from which kung fu derives is vastly different from Western traditions, and the fundamental principles of kung fu can be difficult for Westerners to understand.

By examining the evolution of traditional kung fu and the principles of technique and usage, the path that one must follow to cross from West to East can be more easily bridged.

Origins of Kung Fu

Kung fu was developed to satisfy practical needs of the ancient Chinese. It was not developed for sporting competition or as a performing art, but for defending oneself and one's family, village, or country. The authentic kung fu that has endured into the 21st century reflects the ingenuity of a people dependent on fighting skill for survival. Indeed, kung fu was shaped by the grim realities of warfare and must be considered in this light to grasp the essence of the art.

In general, the development of fighting technique into a sophisticated art coincided with the evolution of Chinese civilization. As people's occupations became more specialized, professional martial artists came into existence who devoted all their time and effort into refining their fighting skills.

Arm Usage

Since the hand is such an important part of the human fighting apparatus, martial artists first concentrated their efforts on improving this feature. Many hand techniques were developed that involved distinctive hand formations such as the open hand, fist, and hook, and different parts of the hand were used including the palm, fingers, and knuckles.

But those techniques designed primarily for the hand were still very limited. The ancient Chinese martial artists were determined to surpass those limitations, and developed the usage of the entire arm as a basis for more sophisticated fighting techniques. They expressed this idea in a saying: “The whole arm is the fist.”

This principle is applicable regardless of hand formation; the hand is comparable to a drill bit and the arm to a drill motor. Using the whole arm (from the shoulder to the hand) gives one a larger area with which to attack or defend, and enables one to attack and defend simultaneously. For example, a strike can be countered by sliding the arm along the opponent's attacking arm, using the forearm and elbow area to deflect the attack as the fist strikes the opponent. Also, the different areas of the arm can be used interchangeably; if one's fist is parried, the elbow or shoulder can succeed the initial attack.

This approach to fighting brought a different mentality to Chinese martial art; the possibilities for technique were greatly expanded, and the dynamics of usage became more adaptable and flexible. If one is trained to focus all attention and technique on using the hand only (single-point technique), one is likely to be in a vulnerable position if the initial attack fails. If, however, the whole arm is considered the fist, a fist attack can be followed naturally, like the connected cars of a train, by the forearm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder.

This is a major difference between kung fu and other martial arts. In kung fu the fist is considered a striking surface, not the striking surface.

Whole Body Technique

Over the centuries Chinese martial artists developed the concept of the "arm is the fist" even further. Realizing that the arm is actually an extension of the body, they began to see techniques in terms of the whole body. Eventually, they revised their concept to say that the "whole body is the fist."

The whole body approach to martial art is rooted in the psychological heritage of China. The lung, a mythological creature that symbolizes good fortune in Chinese culture, is composed of a diversity of animals: a horse's face, eagle's claw, ox's nose, snake's body, deer's horns, lion's tail, and fish's whiskers. This creature reflects the adaptable, complex character of the Chinese people, who were able to create such a unique way of using the body. When the whole body is coordinated as a functional unit, any part can be used to inflict damage. This kind of complex, multiple-attacking usage requires an ability to concentrate on and use several parts of the body simultaneously. One must be able to adapt and change continuously like water flowing until the ultimate goal is achieved: destroying the opponent.

The kung fu way of using the whole body as a weapon is quite different from single-point fighting techniques. In learning kung fu, practitioners must develop a more flexible mentality that enables the mind to focus on more than one area of the body; then the body parts can be orchestrated to execute the kung fu techniques correctly. This training process requires patience and dedication, and a willingness to modify in\grained patterns of thinking.

Yin and Yang

This multiple use can also be explained in terms of ancient Chinese philosophy. The theory of yin and yang was developed as a practical way of describing and classifying the universe. Yin and yang represent complementary opposites such as night and day, female and male, in and out, slow and fast, and soft and hard. The Chinese convey this relationship graphically in a circular shape that expresses the interaction and complementary nature of opposites.

The curving line that connects the two entities expresses the basic idea underlying the theory of yin and yang— change. Yin and yang, therefore, symbolize the process of flux in nature: day (yang) is always changing into night (yin) and night is always changing into day.

The taiji diagram graphically represents the interaction of yin and yang.

Not only do yin and yang continuously interact, but the yin always contains some yang, and the yang contains some yin. The essence of this idea is found in the Chinese saying, "Yang reaches its limit and gives birth to yin; yin reaches its limit and gives birth to yang."

In Western culture ideas are more fixed (black and white), as evidenced in Western styles of martial art by the more rigid conception of usage and technique. The interplay of yin and yang in continual change as applied to martial arts practice can be difficult for Westerners to grasp. The concept of yin and yang is completely absorbed within kung fu —the whole body is continually moving, turning, and twisting, adjusting spontaneously to the demands of the situation.

Many of the older generation kung fu experts were illiterate and could not explain their art, but their kung fu naturally conformed to the principles of yin and yang. Understanding the theory of yin and yang can give Westerners insight into the depth and sophistication of both Chinese philosophy and kung fu.

Body Type

Body type is also an area that shows the physical and mental differences between East and West. The ability to use the whole body techniques of kung fu necessitates a strong foundation. If the legs are not strong enough, the techniques cannot be executed effectively. Like the roots of a tree, the bottom half of the body must be able to support the upper branches.

Western culture places more emphasis on upper body strength. The ideal male physique is characterized by broad shoulders and narrow hips, and the breath is carried high in the chest to assume a proud bearing as exemplified by soldiers in the military "at attention" pose. This creates a body structure similar to an inverted pyramid — broad at the top and narrow at the base.

Kung fu requires the opposite kind of structure —wide at the base and narrow at the top —and the breath must sink to the lower abdomen. When the weight sinks into the lower body, the foundation is naturally stronger and more stable. Asian people, due to their culture and physique, are more equal in terms of upper and lower body balance. Kung fu training cannot be adapted to Western body types. Therefore, Western preconceptions about the body must be revised, and students must follow the kung fu training to help restructure the body.

Opening the Door

Close-in fighting techniques are predicated on being able to reach the opponent. Kung fu experts devised a simple concept with which to analyze this tactical problem. They visualized a spherical space around the body consisting of nine interrelated doors, subdivided into three sets of three doors. The main entrance (front of the body) and two side entrances (left and right sides of body) constitute one set of doors.

The upper, middle, and lower portions of the body make up another set of doors, and the three distances relative to the body--far, middle, and inner—constitute the last set of doors.

For example, one might approach an area such as the middle level of the side door and try to enter and move into the opponent's upper-level inner door. If that particular approach is untenable (the door is closed), one must try an alternative approach. Also, the opponent must be approached in a way that does not leave one's own door open and vulnerable to attack. This strategy is best accomplished by finding a "leak" in the opponent's defense and attacking that specific area (door). One must use speed, timing, and technique to take advantage of such an opportunity. Oftentimes one must "create" a leak to open the door by using fakes, applying pressure, or trading blows. Once the opponent's door is open, the conflict is nearly finished.

For Westerners, the main and side doors and the upper, middle, and lower doors are not difficult to comprehend. The far, middle, and inner doors, however, are not as well understood.

From the position of the far door, for example, one must use the body position to pressure the opponent—even without touching, circling the opponent like a wary cat. One must be able to slam the door, to stop an attack almost before it happens. The far door also involves far-sightedness, the ability to plan more than three movements in advance as in a chess match, along with having the capability of adjusting automatically to changing circumstances. If one thinks that it is possible to reach and totally destroy the opponent according to a specific plan, he won’t be seduced by opportunities to inflict only partial damage.

The untrained practitioner is more apt to grab the first opportunity to attack, to try to force in the door if possible. This aggressive mental attitude is a good quality, but it must be tempered with intelligence and skill.

In modern society there is a tendency to hurry forward for fear of letting any chance go by. The Chinese take a broader view of life. Their thinking is shaped by a long history and by philosophies that include Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. They see life in terms of generations, continuity, and cycles. Patience, waiting for a decisive opportunity, is considered a great virtue by the Chinese.

The Step

The Chinese say that one should attack the door first and then attack the opponent. The only way to bring the whole body to attack the door is the step. The step is used to situate the body in relation to the target (shortening or lengthening the fighting distance). Of course, using the arms is necessary to protect oneself and make contact, but the step is more important. Using the step correctly can open the door and place one in an advantageous position from which to decisively attack. A kung fu expression relates that the arm may inflict damage, but the step creates the opportunity.

This area of usage is little known, even among kung fu practitioners. Many kung fu experts rarely taught the real use of the step; they considered it so crucial that they did not want to teach their technique to someone who might use it against them.

In kung fu, the outcome of a fight depends primarily on leg usage. In general, usage involves 30 percent arm and 70 percent leg usage. Leg usage doesn’t mean kicking; it refers to using the steps and stances. The Chinese sometimes call steps and stances "dark" or hidden kicks because every one is a potential kick or leg maneuver, such as a lock or sweep, that can put one inside the opponent's door.

Most leg usage is low and not as obvious as high kicks. This fact demonstrates another facet of the Chinese character—indirectness. The more direct, impulsive approach prevalent in Western culture is not characteristic of kung fu. In kung fu the less obvious parts of the body are frequently used to inflict the most damage or control the opponent. And, because one is not committed to any fixed pattern of movement, the opponent cannot easily predict where the attack will come or what part of the body will be used.

Issuing Power

All martial arts have special methods that train one to issue the power. The Chinese developed a method of issuing power to facilitate using the entire body for complex, multiple attacking. Technique and the way of issuing power are completely interwoven so that any part of the body can be used to issue power instantaneously. This method is known as chan si jin (silk reeling) because its application resembles the movement of a silk thread as it is pulled from a cocoon.

Chan si jin involves increasing the working distance of the body. A child learns early on that in order to throw a ball far he or she must start from behind the shoulder. By initiating the movement from that point, the ball is thrown much farther than if it were merely flicked with the wrist or thrown solely with the power of the forearm and elbow. Similarly, in martial arts one is limited by the relative size and mass of the body. Therefore, we try to heighten our power. Some martial arts rely mainly on muscular strength and momentum gained through speed within a framework of movement to issue power.

Chan si jin uses the intrinsic energy of the body to increase power. All the body's joints are applied in a highly disciplined twisting action. For example, in striking with the fist, the power comes from the effect of all the joints, tendons, muscles, and bone—beginning with the foot, ankle, knee, hip, waist, back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and finally the hand—working together as a single unit. Chan si jin creates a spiraling or corkscrewing action that increases the working distance available from which to issue power.

Similar to a set of interlocking gears, the joints of the body, beginning at the rear heel and progressing to the hand, coordinate to use the intrinsic energy of the body to issue power.

The entire body must be relaxed and grounded until the moment of impact when all the accumulated energy is focused on and delivered to the target. The actual working distance is from the rear heel to the hand, but this distance is not measured in a straight line; it is measured via the curved line of the spiral. Chan si jin implements a cork-screwing action that unifies the straight and the curved. As the body moves forward in space (like a thread of silk), it simultaneously revolves on its own axis (like the rotation of the cocoon as the silk reels), creating a force much greater than that which is dependent on strength and speed alone.

Chan si jin is not a natural way of moving. Learning this skill is difficult and requires great patience and a step- by-step approach. The first step is becoming aware of old patterns of movement learned from conventional sports and other activities. One must shed these habits to make way for the kung fu way of moving. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu states, "In gathering your vital energy to attain suppleness, have you reached the state of a new-born babe?"

Initially, one must practice without power, cultivating a relaxed awareness. This type of training will make someone who is young and strong feel very awkward and weak. However, "investing in loss" is essential to realizing the goal of the training. Chan si jin training can teach Westerners a great deal about themselves and give direct experience of the values of patience and hard work that are such an integral part of Chinese culture.


This article briefly outlines the fundamental principles of kung fu and some of the general differences between the mind and body of East and West. Students who want to study kung fu or learn about Chinese culture must be willing to cross the bridge from West to East and open themselves to new ideas.

Kung fu was developed specifically as a fighting art, but it also teaches important moral and social principles that can be applied to everyday existence. In today's modern society qualities such as patience, honesty, devotion, and a serious attitude toward study can benefit humanity. For Westerners, kung fu is indeed a path filled with difficulty — but following this path can lead to a profound understanding of oneself and the Chinese people and culture.


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