“I’m not aware of too many things,
I know what I know if you know what I mean.”
I was listening to the Drunken Boxing podcast recently in which Byron Jacobs and Phil Morrell were talking about Phil’s training history in Fan style Baguazhang. At one point he mentioned two of his teachers and how different their approaches were. One, the daughter of the old master, would deal with tricky questions by showing the answer with a physical demonstration, but if you asked for an explanation of the technical details she would sometimes struggle. She could however, just do it. The other he mentioned had been a professional martial arts teacher all his life, and as such had a more varied teaching method. He could answer questions at a variety of levels, from physical demonstration to a discussion of theory.
Most people’s first introduction to Kung Fu was through the work of Bruce Lee – either his films, or the TV series Kung Fu, which he didn’t write, but was based on his idea. The TV series was full of flashbacks to Master Po teaching his Shaolin philosophy, and Enter the Dragon has the classic master and student discussion at the start, which anchors the whole film in a kind of generic Taoist philosophy. So, from the very beginning in the West, Kung Fu and philosophy arrived hand in hand.
Theory is one of those things that martial arts is chock full of, whether it’s yin yang symbolism or lofty philosophical ideas of the merits of the soft defeating the hard or the theory of the meridians and Chinese medicine. It’s impossible to deny that Kung Fu is built on theory.
But there’s an opposite view that theory has a limited place in the grand scheme of things and it’s inherently prone to misinterpretation. It’s an aid to understanding at a certain point, but quite a limited one.
Theory is an undisputed source of dispute in martial arts, especially online. The typical online argument about martial arts (as we discussed in our most recent Heretics podcast on martial arts and shamanism) is usually about the definition of terms. Different styles and different teachers tend to say the same things in slightly different ways, which are correct from their own perspective – provided the teacher understands it of course – but appear opposite when written down.
I think we can all agree that it’s perfectly possible to learn the practical application of kung fu without ever hearing the theory, but could most people could learn the theory and deduce the practical application?