This is my Dad’s old Hung Gar teacher, Y.C. Wong.
Gong Fu literally translates to “Skill acquired through effort.”
Thinking about this, one has to appreciate Gong fu as a discipline and most certainly as an art form. It is not a crude system of fighting, and not simply a method of defending yourself or a martial tactic. Though that is primary, every single adjunct benefit is as beautiful and as sophisticated as learning and mastering the art of playing lyrical music or writing meaningful literature.
For most people do not know the translation of the Chinese word. Furthermore, many do not know the history of the many-faceted art. In fact, it’s interesting, because my previous claim that Gong Fu was primarily used for self-defense didn’t necessarily used to be true for all time.
Its complicated history starts in paleolithic China, when the prehistoric tigers and bears amongst other dangers in the environment were plentiful. In order to defend themselves, humans developed crude weapons and basic skills to defend themselves. They also fought each other of course: the precursor to wars. Warfare technology was limited to spears and rocks.
In the Before Common Era period, there was an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (Da Mo, to the Chinese). Many legends have been associated with this man, such as meditating inside a cave for eight years straight until he reached enlightenment and his arms fell off, and the crossing of a river on only a blade of grass. However, what’s important is that he was the first one to develop Shaolin Gong Fu. This is actually also somewhat of a legend, but at least there is some historic primary evidence of this supposition.
This system of self defense was based on Bodhidharma’s observations of animals, such as the tiger, the crane and the snake. He developed it mainly to strengthen the Chinese monks in the buddhist temples, who didn’t have the strength to practice the rigorous rituals and meditation exercises they needed to do on a daily basis.
From there, Gong Fu was developed over the years, starting from the Shaolin Temple and branching out from there. Tai Chi Chuan was allegedly developed by a Shaolin monk who wanted to further develop his Taoist mind and spirit and left the temple to roam the wilderness, exploring and discovering the secrets of the cosmos, and eventually came up with a softer form of martial art we now know as Tai Chi.
Now, what does Gong Fu mean to me? Personally?
I’ve already alluded to some of what it means to me. Firstly, after going to Karate class as a young boy, my Dad heard tell that his old classmate from San Francisco’s Hung Gar school had started giving Hung Gar Gong Fu lessons in Sacramento. He was a Mexican-American man who loved the San Francisco 49ers, and, of course, Gong Fu. I’ll always remember him on his Harley Davidson chopper driving past my house, blasting WAR’s Lowrider, (I lived one block away from the class venue) and whenever he passed my Dad’s duplex, and I was out there reading or playing basketball on the driveway, he would make the classic Hung Gar bridge with his hand and cry, “Hung Gar Gong Fu!!!” and ride on, laughing.
I was eight when I started learning Hung Gar from him. I realized when I turned eleven or twelve that this was a much more intricate, certainly older, and more interesting, at any rate, than Karate was as a martial art. It was a more deadly art and was much more complex. I didn’t fully appreciate that complexity nor have a deep understanding or at least deep love for that complexity until now. Though I was fascinated by Gong Fu and I didn’t know why. It was like falling in love with a girl whose name you didn’t know yet.
I studied Hung Gar for about nine years. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t practice that much, but I still acquired a sense of inner calm and muscular strength that is pretty nice. My Dad and I used to frequent William Land Park when I was a kid and practice Tai Chi or the two-man staff form, or else practice the Tiger Crane form and then throw a little frisbee. Good times!
When I started college, I learned Wing Chun from the well-regarded master of Wing Chun, Eddie Chong. This is the time when I actually internalized the true wisdom and power of Gong Fu. He was a great teacher – a little stern perhaps, but what’s life without a little rigor? In any case, his whole concept really taught me that Martial arts is more than learning techniques and drilling them into your head through repetition – it is a lifelong process of self-discovery through repetition. The difference between the two being that one was mindless repetition and the other is repetition utilizing visualization and simply thinking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This philosophy, in turn, improved my bass playing too!
All great arts share this concept in common. The visualization, self-doubt, commitment to success, and more visualization that eventually leads to progress. If one wants to become a basketball player even, they have to do all these things. Randomly shooting jumpers from random places without focusing on form won’t make you shoot like Steph Curry – practicing while focusing on your technique – on the flick of the wrist, on aim, on the spring of your jump, coordination – all of that coupled with repetition and visualizing an actual situation where your defender is guarding you, and of course, real scrimmage practice, which is akin to sparring in Gong Fu and Karate, will. This is why Gong Fu translates to “skill acquired through effort“, not “fighting“.
The beauty of the art of Gong Fu lies in its history and potential for personalization. Like all great art. The music of Mahler was influenced by the music of Brahms and Wagner, whose music was in turn influenced by the music of Beethoven, who was influenced by Haydn and Mozart, who learned from Bach, and so on. Each knew the tradition, but each expanded on those past masters and improved the art form for their own time periods. In Gong Fu, the same thing happens. Yip Man did it for Wing Chun, and my old teacher did the same for Wing Chun. The comparisons are cool!
Most of all though, Gong Fu improved my life. It gets me through tough times, and increases my inner strength. I would highly recommend Gong Fu to anyone.