Deep Wisdom in Martial Arts
Photos Courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

The meaning of the word “kung fu” runs deep. Most of us would say it refers to the traditional Chinese martial arts or specifically the art associated with Shaolin Temple. While this is an oversimplification, it’s not wrong. However, when we examine the Chinese characters for kung fu, we learn that together they literally mean “effort.” And this makes sense for martial arts because mastery requires great effort.

Separately, the characters have their own meanings, though. Kung means “achievement,” and fu means “husband.” Maybe this derived from the fact that the husband in ancient times had to work hard to support his family. Another interpretation for kung fu can be “workmanship” or “skill gained through committed effort.” A martial art is definitely a skill gained through committed effort.

If you work hard to improve your skill, eventually you might become a sifu, a term most Westerners associate with being a kung fu master. But actually, a sifu can be any skilled worker, including a driver or a handyman. The irony for those who speak Chinese and who watched the Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith is that Jackie Chan was both a handyman and a martial arts master, both of which can be a sifu.


Having graduated from Shanghai University of Sport and having a background in linguistics, I’m fascinated by the correlation between language and martial arts. The professors in the Wushu Institute at the university were often sifu who combined academic research with ancient kung fu philosophies.

Whether at the institute, at Shaolin or at my traditional wrestling school in Beijing, I noticed that the old sifu often spoke in chengyu, a term that refers to idiomatic expressions composed of groups of four Chinese characters, each representing complex meanings that usually had to be explained. Hearing the old teachers speak in this manner was like something out of kung fu cinema. They weren’t just talking; they were imparting knowledge, and there was real wisdom in what they said.

The explanations contained within their chengyu were like parables. Often they made no sense at all, but if the recipient was patient, the meaning would be revealed. Each one followed a similar pattern. To illustrate, I’ll use a real-life example. One of my sifu enunciated four characters: “Wen ji qi wu.”In Chinese, characters compose words, but each one is not necessarily a complete word on its own. Those particular characters translated to “Smell the chicken and dance,” which wasn’t very enlightening. So after saying them, the sifu had to explain which word each character represented.

Wen, he said, means “to smell” in traditional Chinese, but in this case, he was using the older meaning of “to listen.” This was another aspect of chengyu that made it difficult to comprehend: Many of the meanings of the characters were not used anymore.

The next character he explained was ji, as in gongji, or rooster.

Photos Courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

The third character was qi, as in qichuang, which means “to get out of bed.”Finally came wu, which is part of wujian, or “to do the sword dance” or engage in sword practice.

For the final part of the lesson, he told us how the characters fit together to create the idiom. In this case, it resulted in “Practice the sword when the roosters crow.” Then he went on to explain the relevance. You should get up early in the morning and begin training at the break of dawn.

It seemed like the older and wiser a sifu was, the more chengyu he or she used. Consequently, speeches and discussions often became nothing more than a chengyu, followed by an explanation, followed by the next chengyu and so on.A university professor I met at the wrestling school was a former grappler and current sifu. Being an educated man and a sifu, his speech was 90-percent chengyu. One day, he said, “Tian xia wu di,” immediately followed by “Did you understand?” Before I could answer, he said, “No? OK, I will explain.“

Tian is ‘sky’ or ‘heaven.’ Xia is ‘under.’ Wu is ‘without.’ And di is from diren, or ‘enemy.’ So if you are under the sky with no enemy, there is no one who can beat you. Therefore, you are wudi, or invincible.

”Now you can see why I viewed the years I spent in China as rigorous training but the time I spent listening to chengyu as ho-holds-barred fighting. After a full day of wrestling and san da, as well as academic lessons, chengyu sometimes made my head split.
At the sports university one day — after we’d practiced throws, ground fighting and submissions — our teacher shared a chengyu with us. Strangely, I understood the meaning before he explained it and I just loved it. He said, “The essence of fighting is ti da shuai na.”Then he elaborated: “Ti is from ti tui, which means ‘kicking.’ Da is from daquan, which means ‘punching.’ Shuai is from shuai jiao, which means ‘wrestling.’ And na is from qin na, which means ‘grabbing and joint locking.’” Clearly, even hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, Chinese masters knew about MMA.

After practice, I had to attend a wushu lecture. Although I was no longer surprised when my professors — particularly the martial arts professors — spoke in chengyu, it was still tedious to listen sometimes. This teacher said, “Ideal fighting includes coordination of the internal and the external. Does anyone know what that means?”

As it was a rhetorical question, no one answered. Nevertheless, he waited a second or two, gave a sly smile to show how stupid we were and then explained: “Coordination of the external and internal is shou yan shen fa, bu qi li gong.”He gave that a moment to sink in, then continued. “Shou is from shoufa (hand techniques). Yan is from yanjing (eyes). Shen is from shenti (body). Fa is from fangfa (method). Bu is ‘not.’ Qi is from qixi (breath). Li is from liliang (power). And gong is from gong fu (kung fu).” We got the message.

Nevertheless, the teacher went on to explain each element separately. And in the course of those explanations, there were new chengyu and more rhetorical questions — followed by more explanations. In the end, he said that coordinating the internal and the external in martial arts meant coordinating hand techniques, eyes, body, breath and method. If we don’t breathe properly, we’ll have no power.

You can see that the explanation of a single chengyu can take time because each character represents a word, each word represents a concept and each concept has multiple components that might represent something else entirely.

Next, the professor said, “Shoufa is da la na hu. Da is hitting or punching. La is pulling. Na is joint locking. And hu is breathing. Therefore, hand techniques include striking, pulling and grappling — but we also have to breathe properly.”

One of the monks at Shaolin Temple once told a group of students, “Fei yan zou bi.” Literally, it means “fly eaves go wall.” After he explained, I learned that it really meant “to jump onto the roof and over the wall.” In other words, we should be light on our feet, able to leap and move while fighting.

The final chengyu I’ll mention here is the one I had to remember throughout my studies and my training in China, and I treasure it to this day. It translates to “Diligent study, bitter practice.” We have to study diligently, and we must practice hard. We’ll experience discomfort and suffering — that’s the “bitter” — but we’ll be happy with the results.

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