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What is Kung Fu?


Essential to movements in kung fu are ch'i-controlled actions. Compare the movements of a Karateka and a kung fu practitioner, and the differences are at once obvious. The Karateka moves deliberately, forcefully, each move unique and distinct from each other move. He punches linearly, kicks in a straight line, and keeps his body as rigid as iron. The Chinese boxer, on the other hand, is smooth and fluid in motion, allowing several moves to meld imperceptibly into one long, graceful action. In short, kung fu is fluid.

There was a ranking system of sorts used, beginner, disciple, and master. The beginner (novice or student level), was the menial servant. Only very crude rudiments of kung fu were in his domain. Disciples were in effect almost priests, still having to master themselves, but of the right mettle to carry the traditions and secrets of the Shaolin. The pinnacle of master was reached by very few; it was truly the achievement of a lifetime.

The primary obstacle that a disciple had to pass to attain the priesthood was the test for master rank. Actually a series of oral and practical exams, they culminated in the test of the tunnel. The candidate was lead to a corridor linked with the outside world. In the corridor were booby-traps, all lethal, all unpredictable. The disciple had to pass all of these, for there was no going back, no way out but to succeed. Most never even began the journey; few finished it. The adept who passed the traps faced one last obstacle; a several hundred pound urn filled with burning iron filings. On each side of the urn was an emblem, different for each temple, usually of a dragon and a tiger. The urn had to be moved with the bare forearms to unblock the exit. In so doing, the now priest was forever branded as a Sil Lum monk.

Kung Fu styles may generally be divided into three classes: Shaolin Temple styles, temple-derived non-temple styles, and family styles, or Pai. Within the Temple styles are those arts generally and consistently taught in the temples, with many having their origins in pre-Shaolin history. There are two major divisions in Shaolin kung fu. The southern temples are predominantly hand technique oriented, while northern temples put more emphasis on kicks and foot techniques.

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