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Foundations: Why the Basics Aren't So Basic

by John Chang

Practitioners of the 8 Step Praying Mantis style of Kung Fu (Ba Bu Tang Lang) emphasize “the basics” as one of the most important, challenging, and rewarding disciplines any style of Kung Fu has to offer. Many advanced students reach a point in their training when they grow bored with basic punches, kicks, and techniques, and go in search of more techniques, more forms, even more styles of Kung Fu. Although the quest for more knowledge is admirable, this quest for “more” can conceal the path to “better.” The practitioner who pursues a deeper knowledge over a broader knowledge of even the most basic techniques can tap into truly universal Kung Fu principles that cross all style boundaries.

A lifetime of practice and exploration is required to gain a deep understanding of the basics and universal principles underlying all Kung Fu. Traditional 8 Step Praying Mantis as taught by the late Grandmaster Wei Hsiao Tang has only seven forms; yet, after thirty years of actively practicing and teaching 8 Step Praying Mantis, I have never suffered from a lack of forms or techniques. I continue to learn, explore, and improve every day. Shifu Vincent Chen (Chen Guo-Chin), a long-time student of Grandmaster Wei and perhaps the most skilled 8 Step practitioner today, has spent 30 years studying hundreds of forms in 8 Step, Ba Gua, Hsing Yi, and Tai Chi. Today, Shifu Chen practices less than 8 movements. According to Shifu Chen, “basic movements are the heart of any Kung Fu system.”

What exactly are “the basics” anyway? In 8 Step, Grandmaster Wei taught eight stances, eight steps, and eight kicks as “the basics.” In addition to these basics, I have added five basic punches and eight combination techniques for my students to practice as basics. Although the 8 Step style explicitly identifies techniques as “the basics,” most styles do not make such clear distinctions. Still, practitioners of any style can identify the basics in their systems simply by looking for repeated stances and movements used in various techniques and forms. In principle, basics are seemingly simple stances, punches, kicks, and other techniques that act as bricks and mortar, while forms, advanced techniques, and combination techniques are the houses and walls we build by connecting the bricks and mortar.

What makes a martial art truly an art form is the creativity with which these elemental bricks and mortar can be put together, just as a few basic colors on an artist’s pallet can be blended to create any color imaginable before applying it to canvas. The art is not in the canvas; it’s in the artist’s use of a handful of basic colors. Likewise, the art in martial arts comes less from forms and advanced techniques than from the martial artist’s creative application of the basics when on the mat.

To cultivate a mastery of the basics, “practice” is the magic word for the student, while “detail” is the magic word for the teacher. To get a punch or kick right, a student must practice at least one thousand times. But practice alone will not lead the student to a deep understanding. The teacher must go into great detail about each subtle movement and feeling the student should attempt to recreate when executing a technique. A seemingly simple straight punch can be broken down into a dozen or so sub-movements, each of which is vital to the success of the punch.

When a student lines up all of the subtleties of a technique and executes them just right, the student gets a unique and identifiable feeling that tells the student at once that the technique was executed with jing (“power”). Many martial artists know that jing can be generated by using the back leg to push the ground, but jing is often lost somewhere between the foot and the fist. The most common reason is a lack of relaxation and proper alignment, particularly in the shoulder, elbow, and hand—the connection points where jing can be lost en route from ground to fist. Stretching and relaxing techniques can help overcome the loss of jing at these critical connection points. Once the teacher has guided the student to experience and recognize the feeling of jing, the student’s practice can begin in earnest. With each punch, kick, or other technique, the student’s goal is to recreate jing consistently.

Achieving jing requires exceptional patience and consistent practice. My beginning private students typically spend their first three months learning little more than stances and the straight punch. Few commercial schools take this approach to teaching, for fear that students will become discouraged when they see little outward progress from all their hard work. The dedicated student is well advised to seek more detailed instruction than what is covered in the standard curriculum. Instructors would do well to distinguish between patient, dedicated students from students who need more immediately visible signs of progress, providing the dedicated students with more detailed instruction than the standard curriculum.

Training in the basics should be focused on internal feeling, not appearance. The subtle feeling produced by jing is not externally visible to others. Likewise, only feeling can tell a student when balance, stability, fullness, and emptiness have been achieved. When students concentrate on recreating the correct feeling rather than their appearance, different students may properly perform the same technique in ways that appear slightly different, because their bodies are shaped and weighted differently.

When practicing the basics, concentration should be focused on each of the following core principles to bring them together at the same time in a balanced fashion:

  • Application
  • Stability
  • Power
  • Coiling
  • Circles

All of these core principles are interconnected, and the Kung Fu practitioner must strive to balance opposing principles consistently. For example, the application of a technique often relies upon stability for effectiveness while also jeopardizing stability by moving the body’s position. Power generation relies on stability, coiling, and circular body movement. Linear movements, such as a simple straight punch, rely on circular body movements for power. No one principle can be applied successfully without proper consideration of the other principles. Successfully using all core principles in unison and with the proper balance presents a tremendous challenge for practitioners at any level. Doing so consistently, quickly, with fluid motions, and while mobile all present still greater challenges.

Application – A complete understanding of the various applications for a stance or technique leads to an understanding of the countless details that make a stance or technique truly well executed. For example, in the classic Mantis Stance (aka Empty Hand Stance), holding the elbow of the rear arm too close to the body can give an opponent the opportunity to “glue” the elbow to the body, rendering the arm temporarily useless and giving the opponent the added opportunity to push the entire body off balance. At the same time, holding the elbow too far from the body gives the opponent an opportunity to strike the lower ribs. The correct elbow position may vary depending on body size and arm length. Ultimately, the correct position is found not by measurements with a ruler, but by finding the right feeling—the feeling that the elbow is positioned to thwart an opponent’s attempt either to glue the arm or to attack the ribs. Subtle differences in the way a stance or movement is performed can significantly influence its successful application.

Stability – An understanding of balance and grounding is vitally important to successful execution of the basics. Punches and kicks should not throw the body off balance, even if the technique misses an intended target with full power. Stances like the Bow stance should be impervious to an attacker kicking the rear leg out from behind, causing the body to lose balance. Techniques such as stomping or turning the feet inward can help to ground a stance both for stability and in preparation for generating power. Height must be managed to avoid stances that are so high that the body is vulnerable to throws, while also avoiding stances that are so low that mobility is sacrificed. These and many other details must be considered and practiced routinely to develop an ability to maintain stability at all times.

Power – Developing an understanding of how to use the earth and body to generate power yields greater results than relying on raw muscle alone. Much practice and informed instruction is required to develop the skill necessary to connect the weight of the earth or the body to the end of the fist, foot, or other extremity. Generating power quickly while mobile presents even greater challenges. Only long hours of practice can deliver these skills, even for seemingly “basic” techniques.

Coiling – Understanding the principles of coiling and uncoiling various parts of the body is integral to producing jing and remaining prepared at all times for a full range of motion. For example, many stances offer opportunities to slightly coil various parts of the body in preparation to attack. When performing techniques, the body can generate exceptional power by allowing the body to uncoil like a spring in support of the technique. Even the act of coiling the body itself can be used to generate greater power. A continuous flow of powerful attacks can be issued by using a technique that uses coiling, followed by a technique that uses uncoiling, and so on.

Circles – Fully understanding the importance of circular motion requires much practice and concentration. For example, the circular motion of a hook punch may be obvious; less obvious is the twisting motion in a straight punch, which can considerably improve its effectiveness. The circular motion of the body, hips, and legs when executing a punch is also integral to using the entire body as a powerful foundation for the punch. As an awareness of circular movement is developed, circles within circles are revealed. For example, a single hook punch and a single back fist may each require a circular body movement for maximum effectiveness; yet, a continuous flow from hook to backfist and back to hook again can be executed ad infinitum making the combined punches into a greater circle containing the individual circular movements of each punch.

In any basic stance or technique, numerous subtle details must be carefully considered and consistently checked to develop a high level of skill and a deeper understanding of universal Kung Fu principles. Traditional 8 Step Praying Mantis practitioners place a special emphasis on the basics for this very reason. Yet, the importance of the basics is not unique to 8 Step. All styles of Kung Fu offer the potential to tap into the core principles of Kung Fu itself. Regardless of style, the path to this higher-level understanding of Kung Fu is regular practice and adept instruction in the basics.

© Copyright 2005 John Chang. All rights reserved.