What is the real meaning of gong fu (kung fu)? Most people in the West think of it as Chinese Martial Arts. But that is not what it means in China, it's much deeper than you realize.
In China, they generally use “Wushu” to refer to martial arts. There is both traditional and modern forms of Wushu. The modern forms are based more on performance and showmanship. The traditional forms of wushu originated out of the Shaolin Monastery where monks would meditate and train to cultivate themselves.
The way Chinese use the word gongfu is to mean time, energy, and skill. To put it together in a definition:
Gong fu means master of skills in any art form through a steady input of time and energy.
This can also be referred to as art or craftsmanship.
Art means to join or fit together - that is, to make a craft.
This way, anything you do can be kung fu. There is a kung fu of writing, a kung fu of cooking, and a kung fu of making tea. It is a philosophy that underpins a way of doing things.
In western philosophy, we individualize the process, we have a skill for writing, a skill for running, a skill for whatever.
In kung fu philosophy, they say true fulfillment comes from complete expression of yourself.
It is a philosophy of freedom.
It is a philosophy of art not science.
Art uses truth as a means to an end, science uses truth as the end.
Therefore it is concerned with works and how to live and not so much with defining what is truth.
In Chinese philosophy, they see things holistically. This is actually part of their psychology. They see gongfu as a way of practicing a skill.
It is a two part concept -
The first part is about cultivating the skill, the second part is cultivating the Way or the self.
When you are cultivating a SKILL, you learn about yourself. You learn how to stay motivated in working out when you are low on sleep. You learn how to persevere through challenges of not knowing how exactly to do something. It is when you are starting to take action that your own strengths and weaknesses show up.
The second part is about understanding the Way. The Way are the principles of nature and human nature. It is about finding a natural flow to the process, and allowing it to come through you. You are relaxed mentally and though you may be doing a tremendous amount of work, it is effortless.
"Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels, not what he sees." - Laozi
In kung fu, you develop yourself through the skill. Through that process you acquire understanding of yourself (the Way). Once you have acquired the Way, you can learn almost any skill quickly and perform it easily. There is a sense of "knowing".
To illustrate this concept, when I was training with Master Wang in China, I learned the techniques well. I became proficient at them. When I went to perform, I froze up. I wasn’t able to perform. I was inhibited. So, even though I learned the methods and drilled them tirelessly, when it came to show time my internal state prevented true expression.
This is what gongfu is about, cultivating a skill and cultivating the self so you can perform with spontaneity. Spontaneity is your ability to express yourself.
But, what is much different about this approach is that they say the Way is paramount to the skill. Although one has to train to develop the body, but if you understand the Way, you can learn almost any new skill easily.
To illustrate this, Derren Brown, a hypnotist, trains someone mentally to become an expert marksman without teaching any skills. Hypnotism is about putting someone in a relaxed, meditative state so that their subconscious mind can flow more freely.
In this experiment that he did, he made the suggestion to the guy of being like an expert marksman. And with almost no previous gun experience, was able to hit a bullseye several times in a row.
If you can capture the feeling, the actions flow from you.
This concept translate into many other areas.
For example, public speaking. You may learn a lot of speaking techniques, but if you aren't relaxed and spontaneous, it will come across as stale and rehearsed.
In a rather unusual example, art forgers would get in the "flow" to mimic great works of art and con experts into thinking they discovered an old relic.
What they would do is rehearse the signature of the famous artist many times until they could replicate it. But if it was too precise and didn't have flow, it would come off as suspicious. To loosen up, they would have a few drinks so they were less thoughtful and could express it on canvas.
The concept of the Way goes one step further to express yourself in your art.
You can see it in Hemingway's short and terse writing. Viriginia Wolfe has a poetic way of writing.
If you were to give a speech, you can imbue it with a kind of spirit you wish. It can be powerful and impactful, it can be moving, it can be thoughtful, or it can be enlightening. You can choose how to express it.
When you try to express yourself, you put yourself into that state and allow it to flow naturally. If you want to paint the perfect picture, first put yourself into a perfect state and then paint naturally.
This way, you can express yourself in any medium.
Read (2 of 3): "Mastering a Skill"
Read (3 of 3): "Mastering the Way"
About the blog
Luke Shao and Master Wang are on a mission to share the ancient Chinese approach to acquiring any skill.