I can remember back when I was a child growing up near New York's
Chinatown. At that time, around 1954, there were four or five movie theaters in Chinatown that offered a new exciting Chinese Kung Fu movie each week. Chinatown movie theaters were quite different from American movies theaters. You could go in and buy Chinese food over the counter and have a small meal for yourself as you enjoyed the movie. The air would be filled with the scent of Chinese food and cigarette smoke.
Chinese Kung Fu was new to me, having recently joined a school in
Chinatown. I was fascinated with anything related to Chinese Kung Fu.
The movies opened another world to me. I would sit, eating an egg roll,
eyes wide open, watching every kick and punch the movie had to offer.
Each fight was an experience - guys flying around seemingly by magic,
whirling swords and strange looking weapons.
They were the coolest looking weapons one could imagine. When they
would fight hand to hand this strange beam of light would emerge from
the palm of their hands killing the villain. I dreamed of the day when
my teacher would teach me all this great stuff. I thought that after
learning this stuff I could fly around my neighborhood and knock off all
my rivals. I would be an untouchable master, lord of my block. How
cool, I thought, as I left the theater eager for next week's movie and a
new and exciting adventure that would both entertain and enchant me
For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.
I was hooked on the fantasy of Kung Fu, not knowing the fantasy from the
truth. But this is how they made movies in those days. The stories were
taken from old legends, touched up by a good director and some special
effects. Now, with more experience in the arts, I know what these moves
In the inner circle this kind of movie is known as a "String Movie." It
got its name from the fact the heroes and villains were hooked to ropes
or cables and pulled through the air as if flying. While watching the
movie you could actually see the ropes suspending the actors in the air,
you had to try hard to forget they were there. It sure kills the fantasy
fast. But as a young martial artist, a mere child at that, I was
enthralled with the Kung Fu movies.
Today movies are more realistic, although I have seen some that still
emphasize the fantasy rather than reality of Kung Fu. Still we have
come a long way in movie making, as now they use real martial artists
instead of stunt men and extras.
Master Chris Peck plays victim of an eye poke, above, and eye gouge, below.
Bruce Lee based his movies on realism rather then fantasy, and today
Jackie Chan also shows true Kung Fu in his movies. Even though you are
now seeing true Kung Fu, in one sense it is not. What you are seeing is
the flowery part of Kung Fu, not the brutal non-showy movements. One of
my teachers once told me, "Kung Fu technique is executed in a second, so
there's not much to see, and what you do see, is not very pretty."
This reminds me of an incident in my life. I was young, about five or
six years into my study of the arts, when I got into a fight with a
local tough guy. He came at me with arms spread wide apart as if to
grab me. I remembered a technique my teacher showed me and applied the
raising knee attack. This is better known to martial artist as "White
Crane Stands On One Leg." This stopped the attack dead as the knee
slammed home, hitting the attacker directly in the groin.
A man standing nearby came to me and said, "It's ok to fight, but you should
learn how to fight fairly, and stop hitting people in the groin." Even
today groin strikes are forbidden in boxing. It's considered a dirty
strike. However, to those in the martial arts the groin is a prime
A Little About American Fighting History
It is thought that hand to hand fighting started in Ethiopia around 6,000
years ago, then traveled to Egypt and through the Mediterranean area.
Around 688 B.C. boxing was added to the ancient Olympics. In one form
of Greek boxing the two fighters sat on a stone and commenced to beat
each other till one opponent fell. The Romans fighters wore leather
thongs which made the fighting even more brutal. They added hand wraps
that had brass studs embedded so as to make the hand a deadly weapon.
These matches resulted in the death of one of the combatants. Although
punching was favored, the contestants could do just about anything to
win the fight. Grabbing throwing and even hitting the opponent after he
was down. Nothing was considered to be unfair.
Around 1719 James Figg, an expert fencer, opened a boxing academy. He
took on all comers to prove his fighting skills. It is said he never
lost a battle until his retirement in 1730 and he was crowned Great
Britain's grand champion. His method was to add sparring and counter
punching to his style. He took his inspiration from his fencing skills.
Paul Greenbaugh demonstrates a kick to the neck of Master Peck.
One of Figg's students, Jack Broughton, took over where his teacher left
off and became the next undefeated champion. He formulated the first
set of rules known as "Broughton's rules" which tamed much of the
brutality . Some of his rules stated you could not grab your opponent
below the waist, although holding above the waist was ok. He also
introduced boxing gloves, known as "mufflers". These were used during
practice, but during the actual fights, it was back to bare fists.
Broughton's rules also introduced the "no hitting when a man goes down"
Boxing history tells of some of the best fighters of the time, like Bill
Richmond (1777), known as the "Black Terror" and Tom Cribb. The list
goes on with other greats like Yankee Sullivan (1849), and Tom Hyer
(1849), known as the "Great American Hope," John L. Sullivan (1882) and
who could forget James Corbett, known as "Gentleman Jim."
At this time new rules were introduced which came to be known as the
"Marquis of Queensberry Rules". The fighting arts were again modified
and the brutality of fighting was lessened. The Marquis rules stated
there were to be no wrestling, or hugging. Gloves were to be worn. In
general the rules stated that if a man looked like he were beaten to a
point near falling down, the fight could be stopped. This helped insure
that people would not be beaten to death in the ring.
Today, boxing has even tougher protections for the fighters. So-called
"dirty fighting" is now held in great disdain. American boxing evolved
from the brutal fighting of the past to our modern sport, which is under
strict control of various boxing commissions.
Asian fighting grew out of different needs - to protect one self, and to
defend one's country. Kung Fu is also considered an art form with
ethics, but the rules for fighting are somewhat different. At the dawn
of martial arts, sport was never the intent, as fighting was a necessary
to stay alive. There were no rules of fair play. Even today the ethics
of combat have not changed. It was and still is a killing art, a
merciless art when forced into action. There are no Marquis of
Queensberry rules. Anything that works goes: eye attacks, groin strikes,
throwing, bone breaking, hitting with clubs, stabbing with knives,
winging spiked chains at the opponent - nothing is prohibited.
There is nothing pretty about someone having his eye gouged out, or
groin ruptured, or back broken. These techniques were never meant to be
tempered, but were meant to finish off the opponent as quickly as
possible. It's a westerner's vision of dirty fighting at its worst.
Paul Greenbaugh demonstrates a head bang against Master Peck.
But over the course of time martial arts fighting took on a different
view. This was brought about by the advent of the Shao-lin Temple in
northern China. Here the monks used the Shao-lin martial arts as a means
to further cultivate the body, to promote exercise, discipline, and
focus. Killing was forbidden. A monk who would take a human life was
considered doomed to suffer the karmic consequences of his act. This
was against everything he trained for. So the martial arts skills became
associated with the Shao-lin Temple, where the arts became a tool to
cultivate the mind, body and spirit.
But outside the temples walls the old way of fighting still prevailed.
And those who were not monks found no problem with using their martial
arts to fight to the death. Master Ch'ang Tung Sheng was such a man.
His art is not fancy or flowery, but brutal and straight forward and to
the point. And that point is: to take out the adversary quickly and
permanently, if necessary.
This is not to say that the classical Shao-lin styles should not be
mastered. All moves and applications have their place in the martial
arts arsenal. This is the fun of learning the martial arts. It is a
challenge to our own abilities. Trying to master the various styles and
techniques can be a very important part of learning. It helps us to
recognize our strong and weak points. The truth of the matter is that
many of the old styles were created during a different time, before guns
Although there are such Kung Fu styles as the Turtle or the Frog, it is
not likely you would use such styles today against a gun. You would more
likely be using in-close techniques that are fast and fatal. From a
distance, you would take cover and get away as soon as you could. Never
forget, gun fighting and empty hand fighting are two different things.
In my schools techniques against guns are only taught as a last resort.
One mistake and a one-ounce bullet will take down a two hundred pound
man. It was the gun that defeated martial arts in China. Today, the gun
still reigns as king. With this in mind you should practice your
martial arts with certain limitations in mind.
Why Practice Martial Arts Today?
This raises the question: why practice the martial arts
at all if they are defeatable? The answer is, we practice the arts for
other reasons than killing or being killed. We practice because the
arts challenge our abilities, help us overcome our short comings, make
us more alert, and, taken to its highest stages, can awaken a part of us
we have never known.
Shao-lin as practiced in the Shao-lin temple traditions is beyond
killing. It is a way to harmonize the mind, body and spirit. Of course
if I should have to defend myself in a normal unarmed attack I would
have all I need in the way of useful Shao-lin techniques. Nothing in the
Shao-lin Temple traditions says we can not protect ourselves against
attack. In this sense the Shao-lin is indeed useful to know.
I always tell my students to learn all they can in the way of
techniques. You can never say what you will need at any given moment in
an encounter. Even the movements of the Frog take on value, when the
opportunity presents itself. It's not only fun to learn the techniques
but also can be an eye-opening experience to learn all the possibilities
of attack and defense. It is the game of mind control, fighting
strategy, and physical skills that make Shao-lin so interesting and
challenging. To develop these skills will keep you busy the rest of your
You can see that there are a few different approaches to learning this
marvelous art. You can learn the very beautiful Wu Shu aspects which
stress grace and beauty of the moves rather then the effectiveness of
the move in defense. Some may enjoy this style of martial arts for the
exercise and body control. Then there is the more classical Shao-lin
seen today, which stresses the effectiveness of the move for defense.
Lastly there is the straightforward approach to defense. Here moves have
nothing to do with how pretty they are, but rather how effective and
uncomplicated they are.
These are the good old dirty fighting
techniques that are an intrinsic part of martial arts. These are the
simple strikes that can stop a man cold in his tracks.
For example, in Taiwan that the noted martial arts writer Robert Smith,
author of a number of fine martial arts books, went to interview Master
Ch'ang Tung Sheng about his art form. To Mr. Smith's surprise Ch'ang
greeted him with a firm slap to the groin. Smith remarked, this strike
served to establish the lines of their relationship. Master Ch'ang must
have sensed the need to use this technique to prove a point to Mr.
Smith. Let's face it, there is nothing more eye opening, and breath
taking, than a firm, well aimed strike to the private parts.
My teachers often told me there are three way to stop an opponent: take
his eyes, take his breath, or take his ability to stand up. These are
the three canons of martial arts. Low kicks to the knees and groin are
very hard to stop. The eye strike will stop the best fighter in his
tracks. Of course these strike are used with great reservation. That is
why a true martial artist does not want to fight, for if he fights he
may be forced to use one of the three techniques, thereby really hurting
his opponent seriously.
Hurting people is not the prime directive of a true martial artist. A
Shao-lin practitioner would always rather avoid a confrontation than get
into one. My teachers often pointed out that it is an easy matter to
fight. Just go out onto the streets and look for a fight and before you
know it you will have one. The idea is to avoid as many fights as
possible in one life. This is the sign of a master. Fighting never
proves anything except who is stronger in battle. It says little about
who is right and who is wrong. A true Master will find other ways to
settle confrontations before it gets to actual fighting. Fighting should
always be the last way, when all other doors of escape are closed to
To conclude, I've tried to show you some of our own history of boxing
and just how cruel it was in its early beginnings. It was only tempered
over the course of time to become one of our major sports. But the
martial arts have remained much the same from generation to generation.
Although it has branched into many varying styles over the centuries,
the core of the arts remains much the same today as it did during the
time of the Yellow Emperor: effective, strong, and the best "dirty
fighting" known to man.