GongFu(skill) vs Technique

by Sun Zhonghua on 2012/07/31

At DaQingShan, Master Chen was discussing push hand with someone, I was observing at the side, I could not resist and said “I have a method”. Master Chen, upon hearing, stood aside, the other person kept the same posture, I used his original posture, applied a effective technique. I held on to that person, as he was working with me, I could not let him fall.

Master Chen smiled and said, “You are using ‘technique’”.

“Technique” is “art of movement”, “method”, referring to technique of attack. He was refering that what I used was technique and not gongfu(skill).

I felt that my movement belong to Practical Method, comply to the fighting method, small movement, applied strictly and correctly. I am also aware that it is just “movement”, belong to technique. The opposite of technique is gongfu(skill), gongfu is abstract, may not be visible, I am afraid it can only be felt.

Master Chen seemed to have read my thoughts. After a while, it was raining and we were standing under a shelter. He stood there with his hand stretched out and asked me to try. I approached him, his arm and body did not move, I was bounced out by his fingers. I tried again, was bounced out again, I tried a few method, it was useless, all being bounced back. The people around me stepped up and tried, Master Chen bounced them out as well. (Others will thought this was pre-arranged and a show).

What I have experienced is gongfu(skill). Real gongfu is different from technique. I do not have gongfu, will be under controled once I touch hands with one with gongfu, all the technique is useless.

In the evening, the rain had stopped, Master Chen and myself were chatting in the lobby of Magnolia Hotel. His disciples and students were training the form outside the lobby. He said to me “Look at me, I am going to bounce a person to the direction of the lamp post”. After saying that, he called out to a student who is a foreigner, once contact was made, that student was bounced out towards that direction in a curved line. Although he did not flew over, he did fall towards the lamp. Master Chen asked this student to call out to another forieigner student to come over. Before he came in, Master Chen said to me, “I will push him towards that pillar.” The result, that student fell towards that pillar again in a curved line.

I understood, Master Chen was trying to make me understand the difference between gongfu and technique. I remembered written an article : In a hotel in Shanghai, Master Chen bounced off 2 students into the rooms in a curved line. One went into a store room, one went through a staircase door. Originally, I thought they were coincidence, now I know, Master Chen had decided the destination and executed the force. Where he wanted them to go, it will be done. This is not easy. If the fall is in a straight line, you cannot pass through a diagonally faced door. To make a person to fall in a curved direction into a storeroom, not only that this is gongfu, it is also a very high level gongfu. After recapturing this incident, I have a deeper understanding of Master Chen’s gongfu.

I remember a old saying “A master will not speak of technique”. Master Chen was afraid that I focus too much on technique, and set my target to defeat opponents with method, he demonstrate many times to me. I am grateful to him.

What is gongfu? Since ancient, there are many definitions. Some said, through standing and routine, you acquire “energy”, and combined with technique, that is gongfu. In the martial art world, there are many sayings, example, “fist is inferior to techniqie, technique is inferior to gong”, “train fist and not gong, it is empty at the end”, “train fist a hundred times, inferior to ‘stand’(gong)”, etc. I shall not comment on these here. However in the TaiJi circle, everybody knew, Chen FaKe and Hong JunSheng did not train ‘gong’. Master Chen himself does not train ‘gong’.

Hong JunSheng’s sixth son remembered Hong once said: “Whenever Chen FaKe bounced people off, he did not even need to complete the entire move of “Buddha Warrior Pounds Motar”. Chen Fake did not have a strong body, did not train “pole standing” nor DaoYing. Obviously he had advanced skill. Hong and Master Chen, both 1.6m tall, weighed at 60kg, arm strength, waist strength and leg strength are not impressive, but bounced opponents off at will, They both did not train pole standing and DaoYing (qigong), exhibits advanced skill. Facts above debates. Gongfu has no relationship with ‘pole standing’ and DaoYing(qigong). Hong, at his advanced age, bounced people at wherever he touched. At his 90 years old birthday, at his speech in front of the guests, said “who will push hand with me?”  Looking at him push hand with his grand-disciples, who would dare say “it is empty at old age”?

Hong and Master Chen, besides having the same height and weight, they have the same character. Both are intelligent and learned, and unqiue thinking and opinion, and shared the same humor. It was no wonder that Hong missed his disciple residing in Canada so much, and Master Chen always talk about his teacher with emotions.

Lets talk about Hong’s humor, Hong was having a meal with his disciples and foreign students, joked, stretch out your hand to pick a vegetable is positie circle, bringing the food back into your mouth is negative circle. As I have been with Master Chen for a long time, I feel he is full of humor. At DaQingShan, every morning at 5am, he will lead his students to train the form in front of the hotel. One morning, a foreign student woke up late, everybody was finishing the 1st set when he hurried out to join the class, Master Chen said, as he was in the middle of his form, “Good Afternoon!” That student was embarrassed and replied without thinking “Good afternoon!” Everybody laughed. It was only 5am, he greeted “good afternoon”, a funny sarcasm. During meal, Master Chen was always talkative, everybody ate and laughed. A few times, he did not join them at meals, the dishes were delicious, everybody had more than before, Master Chen’s jokes and stories were even more attractive than the meals. I lack humor, during work, was nicknamed “iron face”, many times I told him “humor is the surplus of wisdom”, seems my wisdom is not rich.

I am saying whatever I feel like, to make this article less boring. Actually, Master Chen is not only humorous, he is very learned, loves to discuss philosophy and anything related to TaiJi. He can make these topics humorous and meaningful. This is good skill. During his study, he reseached education philosophy, there is a reason to this. Putting the reason aside, students from foreign land came to the mountain and have  wonderful enjoyable meals with teacher, this is very rewarding.

As we understand both Hong and Master Chen more, we can understand why they have had such high level gongfu, why we have Practical Method today.

I am not going to set a scientific definition of gongfu, only wish to pass on Master Chen’s teachings, attempt to explain the process of acquiring gongfu.

There is a saying “Train quan ten thousand times, gongfu will appear”, to learn TaiJi, repeat the routine as often as you can. There is also “If there is no rule, there is no order”, “Expert’s instruction, must follow rules”, repetition is not enough, must follow the rule strictly. Once you are very familiar with the form, you can start to learn push hand, form and push hand are closely related. The movements during push hands can only be from the form itself, you can be defeated, cannot use any move outside the form. While training the form, you must experience the application of each move, “train the routine as if there is a opponent”. You also need to refine your training, from rough to detail, from external to internal. After a certain level, the correct moves will be fixed onto the body, during your push hand, any instinctive movements will be correct routine movements. Addition of ‘listening’ ability, accumulate with rich experience, your opponent will not easily find your weakness. When time is ripe, your body’s internal movement is better, you become a effective and automatic self adjust gear box, external quality of movement is improved, both internal and external harmonized and create a sound physical structure. Your force will become very powerful, ability to counter opponent’s strength will increase, will be almost invincible. And after each year’s hardwork, eventually, your internal will change, muscles, organs, will be strong and ‘round”, ‘soft’ and tight (not strong or ‘round’, ‘soft’ or tight). Externally, no bulging of muscles. Human’s body has strong adaptive power, after prolong training, your bone structure, joints, the organs will adapt to TaiJi’s special requirement and start to change. Demarcation of Yin Yang happens everywhere, everywhere is TaiJi. You can control your opponent at the stretch of hand, and your opponent will only feel very awkward and is helpless. The concept of “Hua(divert)” is not needed, each coming force on your body, will be spreaded outwards by your flesh, disolving the force. If stronger force, your body can flow slowly downwards, like liquid, towards him; when force comes downwards, body will be pressed upwards; if force is at your chest or stomach, the contact area will be flattened, the sides will protrude, the force will be disolved, at this point, you can toy with your opponent. The fact is, once your opponent stretch out his hand, you are already close-up to him. This way, it seems mysterious and threatening (some say frightening), without seeing with your own eyes, no matter how much you talk about it, you will not believe wholeheartedly. At this moment, you have real TaiJi gongfu.

Most importantly, and I have repeated many times: first, the routine you practice must be like Chen Style TaiJi Quan Practical Method with authentic traditional form; This whole process must be under the guidance of a teacher with real transmission. Both conditions must exist.

There are many things that prevent people from achieving real gongfu: One, wrong routine. Two, teacher does not have the ‘goods’ or refuses to teach. Three, not willing to put it hardwork. Four, inconsistence training. Five, impatience and easily give up. Six, seek fame and lost of direction. Seven, over-estimate yourself and dishonest to teacher. Eight, rely on own’s great strength and belittle TaiJi’s technique and gongfu. Nine, insufficient study and understanding. Ten, lack of proper conduct, full of pride.

Any of these reason can destroy a man’s path of seeking gongfu, it is the reason why those with real taiji gongfu is rare. Those with little cleverness will over-estimate themselves, mis-interpret teacher’s teachings, change excessively, resulting in wrong training. Those who are impatient, see a method that can defeat others, will learn many such methods, abandon study and hard training, will only stay at the level of technique, limited success. One with great strength and good conditions, meet with weaker and lower skill opponents, win due to greater strength, will believe in “strength will win all”, will take a wrong path. Some, after some training will take part in competitions, competition routine, push hand, got good fame, have little time to train real TaiJi gongfu. We have witness many such cases. It is no wonder Hong and Master Chen often lament: “Our quan, “intelligent people” cannot acquire, strong people cannot acquire.” I will add “Impatient people cannot acquire, those who seek fame cannot acquire”.

The above discusses the difference between gongfu and technique, what is their relationship? On one hand, technique is technique, gongfu is gongfu. There are of different level. On the other hand, technique is gongfu’s material, without technique, gongfu has nothing to develop on, we can conclude they cannot exist without each other.

TaiJi gongfu is accumulative. Because gongfu is acquired from quantitative training . To cultivate gongfu needs a long time. Some may be a little sooner, but will not be instantaneous. In this society of little patience, most people place high importance in fame, anything done with shortcuts, will not meet real gongfu. I conclude and wish everybody success.

Original article at http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_95a3d69f0101227f.html


Translated by Michael Koh

Copyright ©2012, Chen Style TaiJiQuan Practical Method (Singapore) Pte Ltd



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

liminal August 12, 2012 at 5:16 am

Thank you Master Sun for sharing your thoughts and experience, and to Michael also for the translation.

Master Sun’s article illustrate the difference between technique and gongfu, which is helpful for beginners like myself. Techniques appear more attractive and powerful, especially during push-hands when you are trying to make your partner fall, which may lead one to become enarmoured with such techniques and neglect the proper training. However, Master Sun makes the important point that technique and gongfu cannot exist without each other, which I never really appreciated.

The only thing I have to add is to agree with Master Sun’s observation of Master Chen’s character and humour. Master Chen always has lots of stories to share during meal times, ranging from folklore to politics and martial history, and he never fails to find a way to add in a dash of humour into his stories. There was once when the conversation turned to the topic of the origins of Taiji, and Master Chen, after explaining the historical Chen Taiji lineage, smoothly transitioned to a story about the two warriors of Daqingshan who were taught a secret martial art, but who were actually from Mars (and that is why Mars bars are better than Snickers), and the story involved fighting for the love of a woman, epic battles with the two warriors slaughtering armies, sunglasses and memory erasure (hence, why Taiji is so hard to do because everyone was mind wiped), and concluded with the lady love spinning a secret staff that she had and flying off to the moon. All this told with a deadpan expression that will have you beliving him for the first few minutes. So yes, his stories are really sometimes better than the food.

Although he is a man of humour, there is one other thing that I will add, for fear of others thinking him a flippant man. There was once when Master Chen was explaining about bouncing energy, and how it’s higher compared to hitting and neutralising, and a student asked how could bouncing be better as the opponent will continue attacking. The student’s view was that in the case of an attacker who may be intoxicated or on drugs, bouncing him off may not be effective as just taking the opponent down. Master Chen’s reply was that the student’s intentions were incorrect because if someone really wanted to cause you harm, unless you take the other ‘s life, even if he is lying on the hospital bed, he can still hire another person to do his dirty work, hence beating someone to a pulp does not solve the conflict. And if it came down to that choice of taking another life, Master Chen will not choose to take the other person’s life. I thought this was a good example of martial virtue and restraint, coming from a man who certainly has the ability to inflict grevious harm on another person. And that is why I always feel safe whenever Master Chen demonstrates a technique or pushes with us, even though the experience can be unsettling and sometimes scary.

That is just my two cent’s after reading the article. Sorry if I wandered off on a tangent.


alhkc August 12, 2012 at 11:19 pm

“The student’s view was that in the case of an attacker who may be intoxicated or on drugs, bouncing him off may not be effective as just taking the opponent down. Master Chen’s reply was that the student’s intentions were incorrect because if someone really wanted to cause you harm, unless you take the other ‘s life, even if he is lying on the hospital bed, he can still hire another person to do his dirty work, hence beating someone to a pulp does not solve the conflict. And if it came down to that choice of taking another life, Master Chen will not choose to take the other person’s life.”

This is very virtuous but I think the taiji skill of bouncing an opponent out is more about refining one’s skill and abilities rather than an end unto itself. In old China you did not have a choice about whether you should take another life or not… Many times you had to kill and maim to defend your village and loved ones or BE killed or maimed. Today however martial art doesn’t have to be practiced for that purpose but we should not lose sight of the original purpose of martial arts. Even if you live in a relatively safe place there may be situations in which deadly violence is not an option.

I just read a book called Chinese Playground by Bill Lee. In one part he described a situation in SF Chinatown when an old Chinese martial arts master was watching a movie and was targeted by multiple gangsters. He fought them all off but after they were beaten a few of them called in other gang members from outside and eventually the old master was overwhelmed and had all his teeth stomped out. Just saying.. sometimes in life being merciful is not an option. Even if one says he will never kill another man in order to save his own life.. Would he feel the same if someone wanted to kill our wives or children? Never say never.


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