This article first appeared in the Journal of Chinese Martial Arts, April 2001.
Kwong Tit Fu studied Hung Kuen Fu Hok Pai from Lam Cho, Wu Taiji from Ng Wei Nung, and Mu Dong Yat Hei Ng Hahng Morn from Ng Kam Lau. Though he studied others, through the years he became proficient in these traditional systems and later founded Fu Hok Tai He Morn to commemorate each. Although Fu Hok Tai He Morn contains all three systems, each system is held intact as a separate entity and practiced to hold its integrity and characteristics. Each is unique in its approach and stylistic differences. While the same principles and concepts are in our three systems, they are the commonalities that drive all traditional systems.
My greatest test in humility as a young adult was during my first Hung Gar lesson with my late teacher, Kwong Tit Fu. Though I was a black belt in Uechi Ryu and an instructor, my previous eight years of martial arts training were set aside so I could be open to his instruction. My former training developed habits, and I had to be willing to make changes that were a contradiction of these habits. Learning is really about stages of transformation, and I came to realize that my prior training was not a waste of many years, but an integral part of my martial arts experience.
There was a difference in training. My teacher would tell me not to use strength. This was the first contradiction I faced, and I wondered how the techniques could be done without strength. I trusted him so I practiced without strength, taking years before I was able to comprehend this particular concept. My initial training consisted of doing simple exercises repeatedly. We learn through repetition. By doing it over time the movement becomes consistent and natural. I did these exercises at first without realizing the purpose, and after many years of practice, my execution became effortless and powerful.
I spent 28 years with Kwong Tit Fu, learning and interacting with someone who was also evolving as a martial artist and teacher. We were together on a weekly basis as I was the chief instructor of his school and under his guidance throughout. He took the typical role of a traditional teacher offering guidance along the way, but never hinting at what to expect. When I had my breakthroughs, they were often followed by his comment, "Now you know." He would say that our relationship was unique because in his teaching career, he never had a student who studied with him as long as I did. I felt that this bond went beyond the typical teacher-student relationship and even beyond a father and son relationship because our connection was on an intellectual level. I believe that our exchanges not only helped me develop, but made him a better teacher and practitioner. To share this experience and the valuable insights gained made me more insightful and sensitive to the needs of my own students and the requirements necessary to run a school. It is not easy to captivate an audience for the traditional systems in a society that wants instant knowledge and immediate gratification, but it can be done if the content is worthy and there is a systematic approach to helping a student develop.
Training to be a martial artist takes dedication, humility, and patience, all the virtues that a person tries to develop in order to cope in life. I didn't practice with motive. That is not to say that I didn't have goals. Motive has a negative connotation, and in martial arts, it includes how one views a peer as well as a teacher. I practiced to improve, and the obstacles I faced were within myself. I didn't hold anyone else accountable. I learned that negativity wasn't conducive to learning, while an open mind fostered evolution.
Making a career in martial arts never entered my mind. Because I was my teacher's top disciple, he wanted me to continue in his footsteps, but I was already immersed in another business. Being self-employed is demanding, as I learned from running a business for 25 years. In order to have a successful school, I knew that I would have to put 110% of my effort into making it work. Running two businesses would have been a compromise. By successful, I don't mean simply commercial success, but being able to hold the interests of the students and provide them with enough insight for them to realize the benefits and make a long-term commitment to learning a traditional system. The decision literally came to a head when I realized that my teacher was getting older, and I had the opportunity to make a career change. Although he had been teaching for many years in the United States, there was no future for his system. His sons and students had other ambitions and no one wanted to fill his shoes. My relationship with my teacher was fulfilling, and I finally realized that his legacy would end. I felt I had an obligation to continue his tradition because it was important to share his knowledge and my experience.
Fu Hok Tai He Morn is the approach to our teaching methodology. In Hung Gar the approach is from the hard to soft. In Taiji it is soft to hard. Ultimately our goal is to have balance in transition and to develop naturalness in our movement while maintaining the structural integrity of the postures. If there is balance from hard to soft as in Hung Gar or soft to hard as in Taiji, there is no difference in the principles and concepts, just a difference in the approach. And the approach has to be flexible enough to satisfy the needs of a diverse student body.
The saying goes that you can be a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, yet in our training you can become proficient in several systems. The first requirement is to have a systematic approach to a singular system and to dedicate training to learning all there is to learn about it. Of course, you have to have the right guidance. When you master one thing, whether it is a martial arts system or any other discipline, what you gain is knowledge of how to learn. With this knowledge, it becomes easier to master something else.
When I trained with Kwong Tit Fu, Hung Gar was our core training, but it was taught interspersed with principles and concepts from the other two systems. Concepts of Taiji and Mu Dong Yat Hei Ng Hahng Morn were introduced earlier in my training, but I didn't learn the actual postures and forms until many years later. When I learned the Taiji form, I started off with a new set of principles and concepts. Training was easier because I had already gone through the process of learning Hung Gar. During the course of training, most martial artists don't know what are good or bad habits. I stumbled through the years doing forms, working on techniques, without absolutely knowing what I was striving for. This is one of the biggest struggles of a practitioner learning a traditional system. I didn't measure success by the number of forms accumulated, or rank and title, but by the obstacles I overcame. After 20 years of studying two traditional systems, I understood the relationship and the commonality of the principles, and that I had already entered into the realm of Mu Dong theory. What became evident was that the levels of transformation are the essence of Mu Dong Yat Hei Ng Hahng Morn. Conceptually, I already knew what the movements were like by the time I started training in the third system.
Hung Gar has many branches and is practiced worldwide. There are many controversies today regarding who learned from whom and the authenticity of a lineage. This is counterproductive to our goals and unimportant. What is important is for each lineage to preserve and promote its system as a traditional system and part of a bigger whole. The pillar forms of Hung Gar -- Gung Ji Fuk Fu Kuen, Fu Hok Seong Ying Kuen, Sup Ying Kuen, and Tit Sin Kuen are part of every branch and have to be taught in their truest form. Although there are slight variations, the teacher's responsibility is to teach the system with Hung Kuen methodology.
Lineage differences are really stylistic differences, a teacher putting his/her own imprint on what is taught. Stylistically, our Hung Gar is softer. We don't start from the extreme hard, but our movements are not like Taiji. To the new student, awkwardness and stiffness are intrinsic. Excessive strength leads to stiffness and the misinterpretation of developing power. We look for the position and structural integrity early on, not forcing the movement and learning to develop naturalness by not resisting our self. Much of what we do is a conflict within ourselves. In this state we cannot progress. It is best to allow things to happen naturally, to take their course, without motive.
In Hung Gar, two of the main characteristics are the precision and accuracy of the final postures. These postures are the correct alignment of our limbs in relation to our torso and the accuracy of the geometric configuration found in our positions. This ultimately translates into sound structural integrity. Without an understanding of these requirements, a martial artist will not develop properly.
Hung Gar has the reputation of a Southern system lacking the agility characteristic of the Northern systems. This is not true. Without agility, the techniques in Hung Gar would not be effective. Agility comes from the coordination of hard and soft. For instance, the muscles are soft and the bones are hard. The muscles create the movement while the bones support the structure. Tense muscles interpreted as hard do not allow for effective transitions, resulting in non-agility. Along with that, bones are classified as hard. Put them together and you have double hardness resulting in stiffness. On the flip-side, relaxed muscles and bones without the structural alignment is double softness resulting in flaccid execution. It is necessary that the muscles be relaxed to create fluid transitions that manipulate the skeletal framework into structurally sound postures. This is the balance of hard and soft, and this is agility.
To reach the higher levels, Hung Gar practitioners need to encompass the concepts of the five coordinates: hands, eyes, body, waist, and stance. To understand these concepts, one must understand that the hands represent the bridges. The hands include not just the hands and arms, but the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The eyes must follow the hands to develop consciousness, direction of movement and the vision to see beyond the movement. The body is the torso method, which incorporates the twisting and turning of the shoulders, the rounding of the back, and the hollowing of the chest. The waist is the linkage of the upper and lower parts of the body. Without this body connection one's ability to reach higher levels will be inhibited. The stance is the lower half of the body, which is the leg method. The stance is not just the legs, but includes the hips, knees and ankles. Its coordination develops the agility in footwork. All these requirements are developed and cultivated in the practice of the pillar forms of Hung Gar. Everything else derives from these four forms. The understanding of these essentials cannot be fully appreciated until one has reached a level of proficiency when these coordinates are expressed in one's movements. This we call digesting the information and having a truer understanding. Knowing is not understanding; however, understanding is to know. The requirements for this understanding are time and practice.
Hung Gar is noted for its bridges, and yet many don't know what they are, so they carry a mystique. Some trivialize the bridges and they are misinterpreted. Hung Gar bridges are not simply the hand techniques as perceived. The first two bridges are termed the hard and the soft and we already know that the definitions of hard and soft have many interpretations.
There are twelve bridges in Hung Gar, all containing many interpretations. Being able to identify the twelve terms is just the beginning. It reality, the bridges are principles and concepts that define the Hung Gar system. The concept of the bridges is multi-faceted. To a novice the bridges are merely the hand techniques found in all our forms. This is taking bridges in its literal sense. Bridges is a word and like all words it has literal translations. When words are grouped together they take on a deeper meaning, subject to interpretation. In each form, the different facets of the bridges can be expressed, in its transitions, its techniques, and its coordination. Its interpretation is relative to one's understanding. Understanding the concepts of the bridges is further enhanced by one's understanding of the five coordinates. The mysticism perceived in the bridges is really a function of one's understanding.
The final postures in Hung Gar are a culmination of all body components that end at a single point. This is the summation of components, when each body part is synchronized and contributes to create the resultant force. The beginner does not have the ability to activate these components, but through progression, more segments are incorporated with a goal to develop total body movement. This process is what it takes to develop timing, spirit, and ultimately jing, an intrinsic power. This is the most difficult aspect of our training, as it can only be expressed when one has fully digested the concepts of the five coordinates and bridges.
I have gone through many stages of transformation, and this process continues. It so happens that I studied Hung Gar, but this applies to any traditional system. One learns basics in the beginning and they evolve into complex movement. There is a cycle in which you learn, practice, and perfect. A full cycle, as our system logo represents, requires that you go around until you finish and then you start all over again. It takes many revolutions from beginning to end to reach a truer understanding. After enough years, you come to realize it comes back to very simple basics. When complexity becomes simplicity, this is when the information is digested. There is constant self-discovery along the way, and when you have gone through enough cycles, you can self-correct because you have reached a level where all your movements are guided by principles.
As a student progresses in skill level, layers of interpretation begin to unfold. It is a process that takes time, time enough for the body to process what the mind tells it to do. This is consciousness. This mind-body connection is what leads to higher skill levels. Unless one's physical capabilities catch up to one's mental understanding, and conversely, one's intellectual understanding matches one's physical prowess, one cannot truly capture the essence of Hung Gar. This is the reality of the process and the true test of our humility.
Photographs by Guy Falabella