History in the last 400 years was not kind to kung fu , although there were two short periods of wide spreading and flourishing ,or it is appear so , in general kung fu stated to slowly disappear and that trend is continue today . While forbidden and persecuted in the past by the third party ,today’s declining interest is no one else’s fault , the only blame goes to kung fu its self .
From the down of history people everywhere had some form of fighting arts . While these arts were mainly weapon arts , there were some bare hands fighting systems for entertainment purpose and competition . First of these systems is found in the oldest human civilization ,Summer . We have these systems throughout history everywhere on the world , Europe , Asia , Africa , South America . Usually these systems were some sort of boxing of wrestling or mixture of these two .
For the most part of its history , kung fu was , as all martial systems everywhere else o the world , concentrated on weapon training for military purposes. Only a small portion of kung fu , in any , paid any attention on empty hand fighting . After fall of the Ming dynasty , situation changed and Han people could not have military format weapons so kung fu put focus on small , hidden weapons , agricultural tools and empty hands techniques . Introducing the fire arms made old systems of fighting absolute . In second half of 1800”s kung fu stopped to be a fighting art and was adopted from upper social level of society as a sign of their wealth and position. Kung fu grew theoretically , technically but not in the terms of efficiency and effectiveness , actually the opposite happened . Systems were overwhelmed with enormous amount of forms , drills and other exercises which became purpose to its self . Mastering such amount of forms and drills required great amount of time , 20 years or more . Despite all that training , kung fu practitioners seldom fought . Without real experience people theorized what can happen in the fight and made a full systems of “techniques” practiced instead of sparring or competitive fighting , these techniques became too complicated in time and totally lost any base in real fighting . Of course , we all know stories about great master from the past who never lost a fight and won hundreds of fights . The truth is , that never happened , maybe they had a fight or two , but that amount of fights has every man on the world. Kung fu practitioners believed that drills ,”techniques” training and forms can replace fighting . Today we have several generations of masters\teachers without fighting experience . Take an example of the most famous Wing Chun lineage ,Yip Man’s. Yip Man never fought , despite of the legends , he never had any fights ,and even if he had , even if those stories are true , he had only 3 or fights . Now compare that to a boxer who have maybe a 100 fights in his career . We also know , from the testimony of his students , Yip Man rarely even touched hands with his students , there was no sparring of any kind . Again , compare that to a boxer who spar on almost every training . As we can see the gap in real fighting experience is enormous , and only real fighting experience can develop real fighting skills , just like the only way to learn how to swim is to go into the water .We know Yip Man had coupe of fights (actually we don’t , we have no record , just unproven stories) , Yip Man’s sons never fought , as well as most of his students , and there are great amount of third generation who never fought . In three generation without fighting , Wing Chun system changed a lot . There are too many drills , too many “sections” and form “applications” , emphasis is on chi sao but without any real force , because it is an “internal” art , ect . This is just an example , we have this happen in almost all kung fu styles . That is why we have no fighters in MMA or any other world recognized full contact competition with kung fu background , where top level fighters participate . And this is a problem , most kung fu teachers refuse to realize some things . First , the amount of time required for training . In month in a boxing club someone can gain fair fighting skills , enough for basic selfdefense , on the other hand , in kung fu club in 6 month time student will still work very basic things without any fighting training . In several years of boxing training everyone can become descent fighter , probably not good enough for professional fighting , but to be able to deal with most self defense situations , yes . In the modern world , where people have very little time for additional activities , expecting that someone spend 20 years in learning the system is ridiculous .People have very little free time and if someone even shows interest in kung fu he should be able to learn the system in a fair amount of time and to be able to see results soon after the training started , just like in boxing , muai thai , kick boxing … that is why people do not have interest in kung fu any more , especially young people , their world is fast , they expect fast results and there are arts that actually give fast results with a fair quality ,and that is the truth no matter how unpleasant it is .
And here we come to another issue , tradition . If you are 40 years old , spending 4 years in learning something is great amount of time , it is 1\10th of your current life time, same amount of time I have spent in University . Now imagine 20 years in learning …Simply , that will almost never happen , first ,it is too long and second , like it was said before , it is a very questionable skill you having there . Many teachers “waters down” the curriculum on purpose in order to keep student learning as long as possible , but less and less people are willing to accept that , especially because there is no system that cannot be learned in a fair amount of time . Holding to the tradition may be important to some people , but they have to realize that tradition can kill kung fu . I often hear something like “I spent 20 years with my teacher” , and that is ok , but your teacher was your or your family personal friend , didn’t charge for classes ,he was coming to your house as a friend , you had a friendship , not real student- teacher relationship . So , there is a difference .
Tradition is not only related to amount of time needed for training but also about other things. Many teacher expect , actually require from all their students to follow Chinese tradition . And many of them agree . As for me , I will never bow to ancestor’s photo , never offer a tea or light an incense stick to the ancestor photo , or do any ceremony on ancestor’s grave . I am Serbian Orthodox Christian and I have my own tradition which I follow , I simply cannot anything else . Does that mean I do not respect kung fu or Chinese tradition ? Of course not , I have deep respect to all traditions , I actually know Chinese history better than average Chinese , I research Chinese culture with great passion ,I even help to preserve traditional culture , but that is far as I can go . I don’t want to become Chinese and I cannot follow any other tradition besides my own . This is a thing that will make many people to simply go to some other art , tradition and most importantly , religion free.
Third thing connected to tradition is conservation of the art content and it is closely related to the first issue addressed it this article . Stuck in the 19 century , technical content of the arts simply do not follow modern way of fighting . Fighting arts developed and changed tremendously in past several decades due to exchange the information through joined trainings and most importantly full contact competitions . Keeping stubbornly the art in an ”original” state because the ancestors made it like that way and they won every single fight will just result in system without answers for modern conditions . Maybe the system worked 150 years ago , but the world changed enormously from that time as well as the way of fighting and training . If art is not capable to adapt, change and adjust its self to ever changing conditions of the world of fighting and the world in general it will simply disappear.
Last , teachers must realize that preserving the culture does not mean conservation , because culture change over time , as everything else. Social norms , behavioral patterns , believes , desires , goals , simply put , complete way of life along with culture is changing over time and it is completely different form the time of some kung fu style’s creation . Keeping and living the norms of that time today is …well , decide for your self .
Misunderstanding and superstition , there is no lack of it in kung fu . Believing supernatural powers gained through “Qigong” and “internal” training are the reason why kung fu became the laughing stock among full contact disciplines . Training without any serious physical engagement , without any power , believing that after time of practice “power” will come from “inside” is really ridiculous . So what really internal means . When people ask me to give an example of internal fighter I say , Mohamed Ali . He was always relaxed , and he followed all the rules of internal arts . Was weak and without physical power ? No ! Was he practicing “internal” art? No!! So how come he gain internal skills? Simply , through enormous amount of hard training and fighting experience , he came to the point where his art became “internal” and he became probably the best fighter of modern times . Internal does not mean there is no hard training , just the opposite , internal training , in order to “work” requires much more hard work that “external” training , anyone who says differently either never fought or does that on purpose .
There are two possible ways to the future for kung fu in general . Adaptation and returning to its roots or disappearing . Unfortunately , I do not see any signs of improvement , actually situation became worse . Young people have other interests and seldom decide to practice kung fu . What will future bring remains to be seen