Kung Fu in a Park

The phrase kung fu is a Chinese compound word roughly meaning ‘expertise,’ ‘skill,’ or ‘success’. Kung fu isn’t just gwa choys, poon kius, and other swinging punches. Tea ceremony, musicianship, origami, and motorcycle maintenance can all be called kung fu. But its most common connotation obviously deals with martial arts. Kung fu movies. Shaolin kung fu. Kung Fu Panda. That sort of thing. And today, I want to share a kung fu secret with you.


The underlying premise in kung fu is that we try to achieve mastery through hard work. It doesn’t matter what we’re learning. What it all comes down to is becoming super-good by putting a lot of effort into something that we want to be skilled at. But there’s a very important lesson to be learned that all long-term students of martial arts are bound to experience at some point on their paths.

I practice kung fu (martial arts, that is), and I can’t even describe how much it has taught me in terms of achieving skills and understanding personal development. I’m not a master, but I’ve practiced and taught kung fu so I have experienced both sides of the game—the student’s point of view, as well as the instructor’s point of view. And what I want to share with you today is the concept of focusing on the basics, and how kung fu has taught me to appreciate the importance of basics. In my life, nothing has ever taught me more about the importance of basics as kung fu has. Good kung fu skills are all about being an expert on the basics.

Enduring through the basics

No person can truly understand the importance of basics without going through the tough beginning. All masters have been students—or grasshoppers, as they say—at the beginning of their paths. The beginning is the toughest phase, because our expectations are high. We are enthusiastic about learning kung fu, perhaps because we saw Jet Li’s movies, and we want to become mystical heroes just like him. But as we take the introductory class, we soon find out how dull and unmystical kung fu really is.

“Horse stance!”
“Kneeling horse!”
“Go back to horse stance!”
People groaning in the backrow…
“Hold it!”
“Lok gwai ma!”
“Back to horse stance!”
“Ten seconds!”
“Five… four… three… two… one… one… one… one…”
“Hold it!”
“And stand up! Relax.”

That’s how it starts. For every student. And there are good reasons as to why beginners are expected to perform these exercises, repetitiously. I’m going to list the most significant ones:

  • Strength. Stance training strengthens our legs.
  • Form. Effective power generation needs proper form. We have to learn how to generate power with our whole bodies—from toes to knuckles.
  • Concentration. We must learn to concentrate on single actions and learn to coordinate our bodies with minimum effort. Concentrating on one thing at a time stimulates focus.
  • Discipline. We have to be conditioned, because we must be able to withstand physical and mental pressure. We need to learn how to control ourselves when we are constantly bombarded with temptations to give up.
  • To weed out the frivolous students. There is nothing in kung fu for those who do not wish to put effort into achieving great skills.

In the example we had a lot of emphasis on stances, but other fundamental techniques include punches and kicks. We might learn three stances and two hand techniques in our introductory class, but most of the other stuff done during the beginner’s course is deeply connected with the principles already found in those three stances and two punches.

In kung fu, the basics consist of a simple array of techniques that are connected with stance work and movement. The techniques themselves look boring, so a lot of people probably quit just because they see how trivial the techniques look “in action”. But there is so much more to them than just their outward appearance. The “real power” is hidden under the dull surface.

If we take a look at this video which shows an Okinawan karate master performing a basic form, we might think the form is too simple to bear any importance. But the form is actually an intricate exercise designed to train the student in many areas, such as breathing, body alignment, balance, strength-building, power generation, concentration, and the practitioner’s awareness of his or her center of gravity. The form also includes a basic cross punch, gyakuzuki, which is usually learned on the first day, but it is also in my opinion the most powerful short-range punch I’ve ever seen. It’s so simple yet so effective. But proper execution requires the practitioner to master all the mechanics behind the technique. The punch can’t be polished to its fullest potential without mastering the basics.

Towards enlightenment

Getting to the point where you finally understand the importance of basics is preceded by hundreds or thousands of hours of practice. The shift, or moment of enlightenment, is not a sudden feeling of awareness and realization. It comes gradually. It’s so slow you don’t notice it until you’ve finally acquired the knowledge. But once you’ve acquired it, you know what you’re supposed to do to improve yourself in the future.

The accumulation of techniques isn’t the way to become better at kung fu. We tend to feel compelled to collect more techniques in the beginning when our minds are still too immature to grasp the beauty of simplicity. But the more techniques we introduce ourselves to, the harder it gets to master the skill. Why? Because we don’t focus on mastering anything. We only try to absorb new things while still struggling with the old. Nothing gets completed, because we never try to properly learn the basics. But if we invest time in learning the basics, we can master the fundamentals that are essential to progressing further.

And when you thoroughly understand this concept, you learn to apply it to any skill. As I said at the beginning of this post, tea ceremony, motorcycle maintenance, and origami, too, are kung fu. If you want to be skilled at calligraphy, what should you do? (Need I answer this question?) Well, I tried improving my Japanese calligraphy skills by repetitiously writing a variety of characters, but as the calligraphy club leader didn’t see much improvement in me, he advised me to focus on one simple character. So I repeated the Chinese character for ‘ice’ hundreds of times, and after some weeks, the strokes finally started aligning better, and with improved form.

Whatever we decide to learn, we should always respect the basics, and focus on understanding the fundamental qualities of the skill. Drill them into your mind. Feel how the basics are the building blocks that everything else will be built on. Don’t be hasty. Find beauty in simplicity. Stick with the basics. It’s the surest way to success.