Interview with Shifu Adam Hsu
Q: How do you see the place of reading in the study of Kung Fu?
A: Reading is important, as in any other body of discipline. Initially you can go to a lot of different sources: study directly from a teacher, or visually watch some great guy perform or compete. Those are all ways to reach understanding. But, comparatively speaking, Kung Fu is not really well established or systematized. It cannot compete with other arts, with dance, with gymnastics, or even with Chinese Opera. Kung Fu is still promoted with romantic fantasies. Not very down to the ground, so to speak. Not like school having progressive training, from the very beginning, step-by-step reaching the higher level: hopefully eventually leading to the highest. Most of the people attracted to Kung Fu are willing to study with ideas that are too romantic. This is not always totally wrong or harmful, but it is unrealistic. That's why I encourage people to read more. Or go to tournaments and watch. Listen to people talking. Then read a book or magazine. I think it really is much more important in Kung Fu style compared to other body disciplines.
Q: Do you feel that too many people are insular, with too narrow a view?
A: Unfortunately, yes. I've met many, many young people who really have great potential: good bodies and strong interest. But for them it is too soon to commit to one style, one teacher. It's good that Kung Fu has so many different styles. China is such a big country. And Chinese history is so long. There are so many choices. But many of them don't want to make a choice, they just go for the first love. Ok, sometimes you are lucky. You meet the right girl. No problem. But generally I'd like to say you had better look around. Listen to advice. Don't make a lousy marriage. Listen to your parents, your friends, your relatives. Not just at first sight. People are all different. Personality. Character. You must look for a match among the hundred different styles of Kung Fu.
Q: It's fun to shop. But you get people who want to shop all the time. They want to study Wing Chun and Long Fist at the same time that they are learning Yoga.
A: This is an open society right now. You have every thing available. Just reach out and you can touch something. I personally don't agree or encourage that. There has to be a more serious attitude.
A: With research you have a purpose. There's something I want. That's why I do research. I want to find a suitable style for me and commit myself to it. It's not like going to a big department store and checking to buy this and that: jewlery, clothes, food. As long as I come with money I can get anything. That's enjoyable but not serious enough. So actually research is needed to find out. If you cannot find ANY suitable style, turn back. Find something else. There's nothing wrong with doing Yoga. Karate is good. Just find something suitable to yourself. Ask yourself, ask your heart, honestly and openly. I personally do not encourage people to do all different things. Like you just mentioned, "I do Kung Fu and Yoga." There's nothing wrong. But the serious Kung Fu practitioner or the serious Yogi; they probably wouldn't do that. But back to Kung Fu, of course we have Southern style, Northern style, etc. When I was young I wanted to do it ALL; internal, external, Southern and Northern. That's how you think you'll find out, with that kind of thinking. There's nothing wrong, but it's not quite right either.
Q: So there's an evolution. What are some of the ideas that surprise people when they find out about Kung Fu?
A: The facts. Including myself. I read lots of swordsman fiction when I was young. Kung Fu movies didn't have much influence, because at that time I was old enough to be able to distinguish the real from the false. If you read a novel you establish something that you feel is true: that's right; that's the way it's supposed to be. But later you find out: not quite right. And then later: totally wrong. Actual Kung Fu training goes in the opposite direction of what you first thought. A big shock. Fortunately you won't get this kind of shock suddenly. It happens gradually. Slowly, slowly you start to realize...
Q: Some people say, "I like Kung Fu. I like Chinese culture." But they're thinking of fortune cookies. How important is an actual understanding of Chinese culture?
A: I believe it is important. First of all because East and West really lie in opposite directions. We're really lucky that in this global age we have developed two different major systems of culture. But in the last 100 years or so the people of the Eastern countries have, willingly or unwillingly, learned, studied Western culture and technology, democratic systems, even the conveniences of daily living . They have really achieved a lot. Speaking of the Nobel prize alone, look how many winners are Chinese. But Western people are more self confident, more comfortable living just within their own culture. They do not have such strong needs or even urgings to want to learn something from the East such as culture, literature, martial arts. This growth will be slower compared with the East. We cannot really try to change this; it just won't happen. Yet I want to emphasize that knowing the culture is really important to studying Kung Fu. Take our educational system in China as an example. When I went to elementary school I attended PE class. But the content of PE class was all Western sports. There was no Chinese movement taught. In the first year of High School I started to learn Kung Fu. It was probably late. Some people get a chance to study Chinese movement earlier: they do the Chinese folk dance, or they study the Peking Opera, or maybe some other stuff. But my training was really strong and different. That's why, after college in graduate school, I never did one single Western sport or exercise again. I did my best to keep my movement pure, no matter what percent. Then I started to teach. I taught a lot of students who had the same problems. They didn't even realize it. That really stunted their progress. Leaving Taiwan I saw others, Americans and Japanese for instance, all moving differently because they have different cultural heritages. You may try learn Chinese music technique; how to play the Chinese musical instrument; its just not going to be enough. If you grasp the culture, you can do better.
Q: We know Kung Fu has had many challenges: the modernization of weapons; also economic, and social conditions. Can it be preserved?
A: It's difficult. We have to do it the right way. We have to work hard. Study things from the ground up. Take Kung Fu movies, for one example. I would say Kung Fu movies are not Kung Fu like the Hot Dog is not a dog. We have to really try to preserve the purity. Not every nut wants to do this kind of stupid job. But some stupid person has to do it. It's not easy. What you mentioned about the change of time and place in the society is true. Nowadays people live with so many modern conveniences. They don't exercise enough. They do not have to labor. If you want a fire you just click and there's a fire; you can cook. You don't squat on the floor with your fan trying to get it to light, and fail, and have to do it again. You need water, turn a faucet and water comes. If it doesn't, you say, "What's going on with the City government? They can't even control the water?" You don't go to the river with a bucket and carry the water. The human body has changed. Everybody drives a car, or takes a bus or subway instead of walking. I hate to see people in Taipei say, "Let's get a taxi. It's just two bus stops. I'm not going to spend much." That type of attitude. Now in our children's class we have a kind of a joke, but very sad. We call those kids New Chickens. Chicken in the old days ran all over your house, in your back yard. When the chicken is healthier it tastes better. Now they are just New Chickens. They don't have the leg strength. They can't even do the horse stance. That's the change in time. And then of course in place. Now Kung Fu is international and every place has its own local culture. Different backgrounds and thinking makes it all more difficult.
Next is the Chinese communist government's "Modern Wushu." This is emphasized very strongly from the government. Secondly, from the people, is the Shaolin Temple. They are everywhere. Right now they are performing in Taiwan. They do acrobatics and call it martial arts. Deceiving people. I told my students I won't go.
Thirdly is the movies. I don't feel comfortable with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". It's still the same, though the directing is better. If I saw a Kung Fu movie performed by human beings I would stick up my head and help. The characters in that or any other Kung Fu movie are not human beings any more. Period. The Chinese people cannot even do a human Kung Fu movie? Take the Japanese. Some samurai movies, I know, are very badly done and stupid but some are very good. So this is something I'm still waiting for. It's not that I want to do a movie but the movies are killing Kung Fu.
Number four is, I'm sorry to say, many of my colleagues are Kung Fu teachers. The situation in Kung Fu is not easy, I know. It's hard to make money. The kid needs a new car. Daughter wants to go to college. I understand that kind of pressure. Chinese New Year is coming and I need money to buy some more presents. How about a new coat for the wife? It's very tough, I understand. But many of them, because of this, really piss around. They try to amuse the student. There's no more student, no more disciple — just customers. Well, the customer's always right. You act like you are a Shihfu, like your are a master. Underneath you can see that they are very sad. Some of these have passed away, but some of them were still carrying pretty good Kung Fu. As I walk down San Francisco Chinatown I feel so sad.
It's not easy at all. Communist government attack from this gate. The Shaolin Temple attacks the other gate. Movie and TV attack another gate. Shifus are the last invasion. So I think what we have to do, first of all, is hop out. Don't deal with this. Do something different. Really different. I have confidence. People are not stupid. Not everyone is fooled by this. They have minds, and dedication. Some of them can distinguish the differences. I don't necessarily have that much hope for China, but now it's international. We can make things happen here.
Q: Before the Industrial Revolution people around the world moved in a similar way, because most people did agriculture. As a Westerner teaching Westerners I tell them that Kung Fu is just natural human movement applied to fighting. But this is very different from the way in which Kung Fu is sold to the public as self defense.
A: Well, first of all, self defense is not Kung Fu. If you have real Kung Fu you get self defense ability. If you get Kung Fu in the beginning in several years you will get the ability to protect yourself, that's so called self defense. Self defense classes are always funny; also books and video tapes. They borrow from lots of martial arts. Martial arts is not equivalent to self defense. Self Defense is just some simple movements for people who don't want to learn martial arts. Or they are in a situation, with family or whatever, where they cannot spare time to learn and practice. I totally agree with that. For women, elderly, disabled people: they are out to protect themselves. But when people learn martial arts they don't have to learn self defense. Otherwise the martial arts are wrong, or not good enough, or not good enough YET without more practice. How often can you see the self defense demo, or the book, or in the schools and three or four guys attack a young lady. And this beautiful lady in high heels throws them on the ground. This is impossible. This is cheating.
Q: Cheating the public?
A: Cheating the public and cheating the practitioners. To get a young lady to believe, "I can protect myself." No you can't. It's very bad. Think about using the Black Belt. That's easier to see the point. To get a Black Belt in Judo or Karate you have to fight to earn it. But it's not easy for a Black Belt lady to protect herself in a back alley. If someone attacks you it means someone is stronger, younger, bigger than you. So you should have some special technique, knowledge, calmness. It's not just some fancy movement that will make you over confident. But if some thing happens you had better run away, or cry for help, or beg. It's really not about posing in a Kung Fu posture
If we talk about just fighting, that's another issue. Everybody can fight. We always say, you don't have to learn it. Kids all fight. While the teacher is trying to teach, they are fighting in the school yard. That's natural fighting.
Second is martial arts fighting. Every martial art has it. I'm sorry but my feeling, my honest feeling, is that Kung Fu fighting is better. It has more technique, more whole body involvement in it.
Q: You always say the purpose of Kung Fu was to win, to destroy the enemy.
Q: Well, given that self defense is a very simple idea why did the technique develop to such a high level? So high we are now having trouble transmitting it.
A: So many centuies, so many different locations, so many people participating, so many lives sacrificed: and the final settlement is that the technique is really high. If not the Song Dynasty, at least by the Ming Dynasty martial artists said this was very clear. Some of us Chinese say one is "You Cang Wu Shu" — that's for martial arts teachers. Or if you fight in a battlefield, for example, "Yin Zheng Bing Jiang."—that's for soldiers. Even in the Ming Dynasty there was this division between the professional teacher and the person in the feild. The level of maturity had reached that high a caliber. So not everybody had to reach this high level. I really feel this urging, that Kung Fu has to recognize these levels to fit our new contemporary lifestyle.
Q: What kind of levels? Like Kung Fu scholar? Kung Fu combat?
A: My suggestion is, it's all one building, but different floors. There's an underground parking lot, then a floor for retail, like a department store, and higher up office space. Yet one building. You have to be able to divide it. People should not feel bad that they're only on the tenth floor. Hey, it's a department store. They'll make tons of money. You don't have to make it to the 34th floor, to the general manager's office. It's great, if you can get there. But there's nothing wrong with the tenth floor. Everyone tries to get to the top there but the 34th floor is totally empty. Everyone's thinking, my master is better than yours. Enough! Don't even talk about that.
Q: Many people who are going to read your essays have put a lot of time into Kung Fu already, but now are seeing that it is very difficult. In other words, is it worth it for people to try and change after all this time?
A: I believe so. Right now I'm working on a book about one technique: punch. Everbody has to punch, whatever the style. But how many people punch correctly? The purpose is not to make people feel bad. Or get them to quit. The purpose that I'm working on is just to show what's the Kung Fu way to punch. And that's very difficult. As we discussed, divided into different levels. I cannot reach the highest levels, but I'm not bad. I'm here. And I've been all wrong. Now, shift gears. I've corrected my mistakes. Whatever I'm doing, I still correct it. I still write. Storey by storey, you just walk. There's no elevator. So if you have this kind of attitude reading my tiny humble book you won't feel bad. You'll be encouraged. If you can deliver a punch—good, then that will help you in whatever style you are in. Follow your style, respect your teacher, worship your ancestor.
Q: One might think, "It's too much. What's the point?"
A: I myself went through lots of winding roads and detours. But I don't believe people should feel bad. In real life Kung Fu is not a common art. It's not available like in a coffee shop where you can get a cup of coffee. You have to try and find it; like a treasure hunt. You begin a long, long journey. You make mistakes. You fall on the ground and then you have to turn back. I give up something to get something; that's my own experience. I did not have good luck starting from the first. I did not start from the right direction—not wasting any time. Every time I learned something, I thought, "I should have known that ten years ago! I cannot believe it! How dumb!" It's the same when I'm writing. Now I'm helping others. From a fool, in fact, not a "wise man from the East." (laughter) I'm not a wise man. So, feel bad? Yes, of course. But you still have to go on. So I don't know how people will react to this book, my articles; essays here, collections there.
At least I can bring it to their attention. The reader can do some re-thinking, review their own art. I don't think what I'm doing here is the whole truth and only the truth. At least it can open some discussion, some thinking and rethinking. I think that's all that counts. Maybe later you'll find something that's right here, I will be very happy and honored. Maybe you will be totally against me. Use any channel. Let me know so that I can learn a little bit more. That's also good for me.