Nov 09th 2015  


Here is Alex Cole, who trains at FWC City & Islington, talking about how he got into training and what on earth induced him to go for a competition in China.

“I started practising Kung Fu almost exactly three and a half years ago – white crane to be precise.

On 3 November, I am flying to Fujian province in Southern China. If, and it’s a big if, I’m judged to be good enough, I’ll compete in two international Kung Fu competitions a week apart. Most of my friends regarded the Kung Fu as pretty eccentric to start with. The competition is another level of crazy. One friend joked about an intervention. People like to do karate chops when they are around me. Most of them don’t know what Kung Fu is, they certainly can’t see me doing it

Most of my friends regarded the Kung Fu as pretty eccentric to start with.

and can’t understand what possessed me to sign up for a competition. This is my attempt at an explanation.


Truth be told, I got into Kung Fu partly by accident. I wanted to be a bit more active and had vague notions about learning to defend myself after seeing an ugly incident in a pub. But my reasons for doing Kung Fu in particular were, in retrospect, idiotic – I tried krav maga, fainted in my first class and was too ashamed to go back even though I’d paid for a t-shirt, a water bottle and a month’s worth of classes; I was going to try judo but the Kung Fu classes were closer to my house; I quite liked the Wu Tang Clan. It was purely out of good luck that, for all my stupidity, I joined the Fujian White Crane club founded in 1977 and still run by Chief Instructor Dennis Ngo, whose students routinely go to competitions in China and return with a haul of gold medals. As I have moved around London, I’ve trained under a series of Dennis’ students, finally finding a

I’m getting on that plane to China come what may.

with Dave Courtney-Jones. I haven’t always trained consistently. Life has sometimes got in the way. But I’ve always known I’d stick with it and now I have no way out – I’ve paid my money, done the training and I’m getting on that plane to China come what may.


So, to the first question. What exactly is Kung Fu? It’s probably best to define it as an umbrella term for the martial arts of China and leave it at that. Bruce Lee, who kickstarted the martial arts craze of the 1970s, was a Kung Fu practitioner (“everybody is taekwando fighting” don’t have the same ring) but Japanese and Korean styles have probably left a more long-standing impression in the West than those of China. It’s the reason my friends and colleagues imagine I’m doing something a bit like karate – “do you wear the white pyjamas?” “what belt are you?”. I’d hazard a guess

“do you wear the white pyjamas?”

karate, judo and taekwando have better recognition because all have powerful governing bodies which regulate and standardise the practice and look of their styles. This standardisation means they register more easily in the popular consciousness and can be exported more readily across the globe (a bit like the Big Mac).


By contrast there are many thousands of styles of Kung Fu, some even preserved by successive generations of a single family. It’s not easy to see what connects many of these (look online at videos of “dog style Kung Fu” followed, say, by “baguazhang” – answers on the back of a postcard please). The traditional stories that do offer a unifying narrative thread – Bodhidharma, the Shaolin temple etc. – are hugely contested and widely thought to be rooted more in myth than historical fact. Other attempts at classification (external vs internal, hard vs soft, Northern vs Southern) are also controversial to differing degrees and don’t give a much clearer picture to the uninitiated.


A more useful distinction can be drawn between traditional Kung Fu (in all its many guises) and the modern wushu (xiandai wushu) that has received Chinese government backing from the mid-20th century onwards. Traditional Kung Fu has had an uneasy relationship with the Chinese government over the last century. Kung Fu schools, with their emphasis on lineage, filial piety and tradition, were mistrusted for their conservatism and viewed as likely sources of political dissent. They frequently came under attack both before and during the Cultural Revolution and many of the best practitioners fled the mainland for Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. In its place, the Chinese government developed and sponsored modern wushu. This has its roots in traditional Kung Fu but strips away the emphasis on history and martial application and replaces it with gymnastic leaps and flips.


And there lies the key distinction. In traditional Kung Fu, the movements have to actually work in a combat situation. There is no “art” without the “martial” – one follows from the other. When a skilled Kung Fu practitioner throws a punch, it has to be effective. But the speed, power and economy of movement also makes it beautiful. In modern wushu, it’s purely about the aesthetics. On a previous trip to China, I witnessed a demonstration from students of a state sponsored wushu programme. They demonstrated a weird and wonderful range of Chinese weaponry, all the while performing a series of backflips and somersaults. It was an amazing sight. But when we took their teacher out for dinner that evening, her attitude towards her students was one of despair: “once they go down that route, you can never get them back”. I’ll be honest, if you offered me the ability to do backflips while holding a spear, I’d take it. I think it would go down well at parties. But I can see her point. If I ever got mugged at a cashpoint, I don’t think collapsing into the splits would help.


If a coherent definition of Kung Fu is beyond me, I can at least attempt to explain a bit about the style I practise – the Tiger-Crane Combination style taught by Master Ang Lian Huat in Singapore in the mid-20th century, which descends from the White Crane system of Fujian Province. Fitness-conscious Westerners (men especially) generally aspire to look like a bit like an upside down triangle – bulky in the shoulders and arms, slim waist, skinny legs. The ideal body shape for tiger-crane is the opposite – the basic stance is low and the legs should be strong, bent and locked in place. The upper body is quick, light and whippy – the punches and blocks are all generated from the twisting of the waist rather than isolated arm movements. The elbows are pulled in tight to protect the chest. The animal element is most distinct in the articulation of the hands, which resembles the head and wings of a crane.


Because power is generated from the muscles in the waist, the style is perfect for self-defence against larger attackers. As the Chief Instructor likes to say, “there is no one on earth with biceps larger than your stomach” (although it must be said that some have more of an advantage in this respect than others). It is no accident that our club is as popular with women as with men and that, according to the White Crane foundation myth

“there is no one on earth with biceps larger than your stomach”

(almost every Kung Fu style has one), the style was founded by a young woman.


I know some people in the West have a hard time with the animal associations and folk stories that are an intrinsic part of much traditional Kung Fu. I think this is borne of a misunderstanding. The practice of White Crane Kung Fu does not involve grown men and women jumping around pretending to have wings. These Kung Fu styles were developed along sound fighting principles and tested in real combat situations. Techniques that didn’t work died with the practitioner. (It’s our good luck that we live in less dangerous times). But the old masters were also rural people living in pre-modern China. The natural world is what they knew best. It is hardly surprising that when they looked to explain what they were doing, they used metaphors that drew from the flora and fauna around them. Western sports have these – haymakers in boxing, scything challenges in football – but we’re blinded to the anachronism by familiarity.


Very crudely speaking, students of traditional Kung Fu learn two interrelated skills – patterns (or “forms”) and sparring. My style is no different.


Patterns are choreographed sequences of movements performed solo. They ensure the transmission of the style from generation to generation and serve as a useful vehicle for solo practice. The former because each pattern is a repository of techniques that are preserved when taught by a master to his or her student. The latter because they allow a student to learn and practise a sequence of dangerous techniques at full speed and strength without the risk of injuring someone else. In my style there is a basic syllabus of 16 but there are actually a further 32 after that – the fact that I’m only on the third after three and a half years (and this doesn’t automatically make me the class dunce) serves to underscore that Kung Fu mastery does not come quickly.


Sparring is essentially fighting – the application of the techniques learned in the patterns with a partner. Full-contact sparring usually involves protective gear and often some restrictions on hitting certain parts of the body (e.g. the knee, groin and face) to protect against the risk of injury (the irony of all the posturing and talk of street fighting in mixed martial art (MMA) circles is that the sport has developed in the way it has specifically in response to the artificial restrictions of ring, rules and protective equipment).


Patterns and sparring go hand in hand. If you practise your pattern without knowing and also demonstrating the application of the techniques, you are just doing a dance. If you practise sparring without patterns, you never develop the correct techniques and strength to apply them.


The competitions I am entering are patterns competitions. The obvious advantage of this over a sparring competition is that I hopefully won’t lose any blood. The disadvantage is that it’s actually quite hard to avoid the “just doing a dance” pitfall. The judges will all be skilled Kung Fu practitioners but none of them practises my specific style. They have no context for what I’m doing. If I go out and just wave my hands about, all they’ll see is an English guy waving his hands around. There is no opponent to help them see where I’m striking and blocking. It’s therefore all on me to demonstrate the strength and martial application of each movement. It’s been a hard lesson that this is no easy feat.


The training has been tough. I started in earnest three months ago and have been making two trips a week to the Chief Instructor’s house in the countryside where I train in his back garden – sometimes alone, usually in the dark, practising the same moves over and over for several hours. When I’m not there and not working, I train. I train in the mornings before I leave for work. I go to Dave’s classes in the evenings. I train on Fridays, all of Saturday and most of Sunday.


17 other men and women from my club are also making the trip. It has been an enormous help to be able to share my experiences with them. Last Saturday we stood in the Chief Instructor’s garden and performed our patterns two at a time to the rest of the group from 10am to 5pm. It could have been like a seven hour date with Simon Cowell. It wasn’t. I was very touched by how readily the others were willing to offer me tips, guidance and, most of all, motivation. I needed it more than anyone else. Although there are plenty of beginners within the club, I am the least advanced of the 18 students who are actually going to China to compete. If I’m permitted, I’ll be performing my third pattern. There are others who will be doing their ninth and tenth. Basically, I am the tea boy. (I mean this literally – traditional Chinese etiquette dictates that when we arrive in China, I pour the tea and serve the rice for the Chief Instructor and the rest of the group.)


Starting as I have from a lower base than anyone else, I have frequently found the experience extremely frustrating. I’ve looked around me at people for whom it all seems to come much more easily and wondered whether I’ve been making any progress at all. I’ve known throughout the last three months that the Chief Instructor might decide I wasn’t good enough to represent him and his club. At one point I completely convinced myself that I wasn’t and that he would decide exactly that. I was all too aware of my physical inadequacies – wobbly ankles, weak legs, crooked posture – and the nigh on impossibility of fixing them in time.


Well, my ankles are still wobbly, my legs still weak (I’m pretty sure those are the lyrics to an Elvis Presley song) and I still haven’t compensated for years of slouching. The training has been every bit as physically demanding as I expected. I think I’ve got better, although it’s always hard to gauge your own progress. But what I have noticed is a change in my own mindset. This has taken me by surprise. Although I never realised it, my previous attitude towards Kung Fu was one of enthusiastic self-defeatism. I loved the style, I had nothing but awe for my instructors, I did quite a lot of it and it kept me fit. But I was quite sure I wouldn’t ever be any good. Of course, I thought to myself, it would all be so different if I had started training at five years old, like the Chinese do. It was an attitude that was predictably self-fulfilling.


It took me longer than it should have done, but halfway through my competition training, I realised that I had to change this attitude. The same Chinese who were previously my excuse for not getting any better are now the reason I cannot fail. They will be there watching me at each competition. My Chief Instructor has spent a lifetime trying to disprove the received wisdom among the Chinese that Westerners just can’t do Kung Fu. He has been remarkably successful in this. I can’t let him down.


As a result, I’ve had to think a lot in the last few months about the difference between waving my hands around and what it takes to actually perform. I realise now that I’ve played musical instruments for most of my life, sometimes in front of decent sized audiences, without ever seriously thinking about how performing music might differ from simply going through the motions, however nicely. Or I had, but only in the most superficial way – forte mark here, staccato there – rather than focussing on the far more fundamental question of what it takes to really move other people and what mental, physical and emotional state one needs to be in to get there. Had it occurred to me at all to think in those terms in the past, I would have stopped myself – too embarrassing, too presumptuous.


I think that sometimes you have to learn a lesson several times to really learn it. I’ve always known on an intellectual level that technique and performance aren’t the same thing. I know that Miles Davis couldn’t match the technique of many other jazz trumpeters but only he, in his own words, “changed the course of music five or six times” (ever modest – google the full quotation when your kids are out of the room). But I hadn’t ever actually put that knowledge into practice – with music, with Kung Fu, with anything. I just fell back into focusing on the technical details and assuming that everything else would one day magically fall into place.


With this competition, I just don’t have the luxury of doing that. I can’t rely on the assumption that an exciting performance will simply follow once I’ve mastered my movements – the movements weren’t correct when I started, they aren’t correct now and they won’t be correct if and when I perform in China. I recently read a book by the jazz musician Kenny Werner where he asked the rhetorical question ‘if you master the English language, does that make you a poet’. For me it’s much starker than that – I’ll be speaking pidgin English and need to pretend I’m William Blake.


Once I started thinking about performance in and of itself, I reached the next roadblock. I can think of the traits of a good performer. I’m just pretty sure I don’t have any of them. I’m very softly spoken and, to quote another one of my ever supportive group of friends, “look like a wimp”. Performing my pattern requires me to shout and look mean. I have bashed my head against my own mental brick wall for the last month or more. Why I can’t I just let go and yell? Why do I somehow feel that it’s more embarrassing to really throw myself into my movements with some intent and purpose rather than flopping around like a wet rag? I’ve had to think about whether character traits I pretended were positive (after all, no one likes a show off) really weren’t (maybe I am just a wimp).


I’ve learned that I couldn’t perform with the requisite intensity because I didn’t have the level of focus required. My pattern lasts just north of a minute. Concentrating for the entirety of this minute is almost completely beyond me. Of course I didn’t notice this myself and so was completely shocked and astonished at the revelation. Shocked and astonished because I flatter myself into believing I lead quite a productive and active life. I juggle learning jazz guitar, Kung Fu and a handful of other things around a pretty demanding job. I’m intent on packing as much as I can into my day. But I’ve realised that I’m continually distracted and so rarely make any of it really count. With each thing I’m doing, I’m already thinking ahead to the next thing.


Re-examining my own character and habits in this way hasn’t been particularly comfortable. But it has been a revelation. I’ve barely touched my guitar in the last three months. But paradoxically, I think I’ve actually become a better player in this period. I realise that I make exactly the same excuses for not improving at the guitar as I did with Kung Fu (I actually have to be quite creative here – I have been playing the guitar since I was a child so instead I choose to lament the fact that I haven’t been specifically been playing jazz guitar for all that time). I realise that I suffer from the same lack of focus. As a result, I’ve already decided to completely overhaul my practice routine. Instead of practising for an hour in front of the television, I plan to actually practise for less time – thirty minutes or even twenty – but focus completely without any distractions. Since I’ve worked out that I can concentrate for precisely 30 seconds, I expect it will be torture. I’m also quite confident that I’ll finally start to get good.


Dave often talks about how Kung Fu brings benefits to the rest of one’s life. As I said earlier, I think that you have to learn some lessons several times over. I always accepted this one as true on one very basic level. Kung Fu has brought me many benefits. Compared to when I started, I am fitter, sleep better, eat better and am far more immune to stress. However, Kung Fu doesn’t have a monopoly on any of those things – had I plucked up the courage to go back to the krav maga class or been less lazy about trying judo, I’ve no doubt I’d be extolling the same benefits. Now I have gone through all of my competition training, I interpret what Dave says differently. I think we all have moments in our lives which have a completely seismic effect on our worldview and yet which the people around us might not even know have happened. I remember a lecture at university that unalterably changed the way I think about certain fundamental issues. The last three months have been another one. Martial arts films are full of clichés of quests and self-discovery. I really wasn’t looking for any of that. But the more time I have spent thinking about what Kung Fu is and means to me, the less I find that my answer has anything to do with the physical benefits it brings, the specificities of when and where it was created, or even its practical application. I could keep myself fit doing any old form of exercise;

I’m not part of modern China or the China of 100 years ago; I hope I never have to defend myself against an assailant. So while those things interest me, they can’t ultimately be the reason I’m doing it.

What I omitted from my non-definition of Kung Fu earlier is an actual translation of the words into English. The name of some martial arts describes a purely physical practice – karate (“empty hand”), krav maga (“contact combat”). Others describe something more akin to a philosophy – judo (“the gentle way”). “Kung Fu” is more blunt. It simply means “hard work”. In China the words can be applied to anything – one can paint with Kung Fu, cook dinner with Kung Fu, even wash the car with Kung Fu. It is an attitude, an intense commitment to doing whatever it takes to do something correctly. The mistake that Westerners make in their practice of Kung Fu is assuming that it somehow starts as an intellectual exercise – that they can somehow think their bodies into doing it.  Pop cultural associations between scholars/monks and Kung Fu perhaps accidentally encourage this attitude. In fact, Kung Fu begins as a purely physical activity.  Advancement comes through accepting the movements one is taught without question, and repeating them over and over and over. Monkey see, monkey do. But just in the way that if you say a familiar word over and over again, it starts to become something strange and incomprehensible, so too the repetition of movements in Kung Fu begins to have unpredictable and far reaching effects on one’s consciousness.

Last Saturday, I was still standing in a field, in the dark, practising the same moves over and over for hours. The basic movements hadn’t changed from when I started practising them three months ago, but I had a strange sense that maybe I had.”