kung fu

To properly introduce the Chinese martial arts, one must discuss the utilitarian, natural, poetic, philosophical and ethical aspects of kung fu, as well as basic differences between the major schools. From the utilitarian or combative point of view, kung fu generally consists of the following:

  • Hand techniques: punches, strikes, thrusts and finger movements (often in imitation of animals)
  • Foot techniques: kicks, sweeps and floor movements
  • Throws and trips
  • Joint locks and chokes
  • Weapons: there are more than 18 traditional weapons, but the major ones are the staff, spear, sword and broadsword.

These five categories encompass the 400-plus classical systems of kung fu that have appeared during China's vast martial history. Because the manifestations of combat are infinite, a structure was needed to provide a reason for the what, where, how and why of the movements, as well as a method for systematizing training.

Kung fu is often categorized into Northern and Southern systems, with the Yangtze River as the dividing line. Nan chuan, pei tui (Southern fists, Northern legs) is a common Chinese-boxing aphorism that summarizes the differences between Northern and Southern styles.

Generally, the techniques in the South concentrate on hand movements, while leg work is predominant in Northern styles. Naturally, Southern systems also have foot techniques, but they use them far more sparingly and cautiously. Rarely are there high kicks or flying kicks such as those that typify the Northern systems.

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A demonstration of nan chuan, or southern fist, performed in South Korea.

Both the physiological differences between Northern and Southern Chinese people and the geographical differences between North and South China contributed to the contrasting approaches to combat that evolved in each region. Northerners are usually taller and have longer limbs than Southerners, who tend to be shorter. It seems quite natural, then, that Northern Chinese would take advantage of their extended reach and develop long-distance fighting techniques with emphasis on leg work.

Second, Northern regions of China suffer harsh winters, so inhabitants must bundle up in thick clothing to stay warm. Heavy leggings make it difficult to kick with a snapping motion that uses the knee as a hinge. Hence, the Northerners employed more high, straight-legged kicks and developed wide, sweeping motions and floor rolls, all done with legs extended. Another reason for stressing leg work was that the Northern Chinese, especially those descended from nomadic tribes, were excellent horsemen, which meant that their lower bodies tended to be particularly well developed.

In contrast, Southern systems stress close in-fighting, with a strong, firm stance as a base for generating powerful hand techniques. The reason often suggested for the development of such in-fighting is that cities in South China were more congested, so self-defense movements had to work in confined areas. Also, in the South, much activity happened on junks and sampans, so a strong stance was necessary to maintain balance when fighting on the rocking vessels.

— Story by Lawrence Tan

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Eleven years ago today — on June 3, 2009, to be precise — David Carradine passed away. Carradine, of course, is best-known for his leading role in the 1970s television series Kung Fu, in which he portrayed a half-American, half-Chinese Shaolin monk named Kwai Chang Caine. He is best-known to some members of the Black Belt staff for being the only martial artist ever to bring his dog to his photo shoot.

The Kung Fu series remains as fun to watch now as it was when it premiered 48 years ago — for several reasons. The writing and direction were magnificent. The cast was talented and diverse. And David Carradine pushed the director and martial arts coordinator to allow him to perform as many of his character's martial arts moves as possible.

David Carradine's reasoning was that fans would not identify with the story lines or his character if all the action was done by stunt doubles. Carradine fancied himself a decent martial artist, and why shouldn't he? From the get—go, he had great instructors to learn from — like Kam Yuen and later Rob Moses. And he kept at his training for nearly 40 years. In part, that is why Black Belt readers voted him the magazine's 2002 Kung Fu Artist of the Year.

It's unfortunate that there will always be haters who never tire of telling the world that Carradine had no real martial arts ability.

David Carradine was a friend of Black Belt magazine. He enjoyed working with the staff because their several collaborations had proved successful for both parties.

David Carradine and Floyd Burk, author of this post.

There are many ways to assess David Carradine's devotion to his craft and, in particular, his skills and knowledge in the Chinese martial arts. Among them are three seasons of the Kung Fu series, which are still available on DVD. The episodes convey a timeless wisdom that most martial artists still hold dear.

You can see a different side of David Carradine in the set of tai chi videos he made, in his book The Spirit of Shaolin and in his second TV series from the 1990s, titled Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Fans will find these works rewarding ways to remember Carradine and Caine. May he rest in peace.

Story by Floyd Burk • Photos by Rick Hustead

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