There’s a great scene in The Matrix, when a newly liberated Neo finishes uploading another martial art, looks up at Morpheus and says, “I know kung fu.”
What’s great about this isn’t the well-delivered line, but the knowing look on Morpheus’s face when he briefly pauses, and then replies, “Show me.” Morpheus, as we discover moments later, had a far more profound understanding of kung fu than Neo.
What is Kung Fu?
It’s a common misconception, even among martial artists, that “kung fu” is a catchall term for Chinese martial arts. In fact, the phrase itself has nothing to do with self defense or fighting.
The two characters that make up the phrase, 功 (kung) and 夫 (fu), like all Chinese words, are simple when dislocated from one another, and ripe with connotations when combined.
“Kung” can be translated for uses such as effort, service, work, achievement and, interestingly, power. “Fu” isn’t a word that’s used alone, though its individual meaning is adult male, husband, or manual worker, and implies a sense of hard-earned experience or diligent practice to any compounds it’s bonded into.
So we can see that, combined, “kung fu” literally translates as “work man.” When lacing in the connotations of each word, the phrase is greatly expanded to mean “the achievements gained through conscientious effort.”
From the perspective of the initiated, it’s clear how this sentiment applies so intimately to the practise of martial arts, and how “kung fu” has become a blanket idiom for the Chinese martial disciplines. But kung fu is, literally and in every sense of its meaning, hard work.
Who Knows Kung Fu?
Well, we understand now why Morpheus had that wry look on his face when Neo proclaimed to know kung fu. What Neo knew – and Morpheus was aware of this – is how to perform the moves from various different martial arts. He performed them well, of course, but he didn’t actually know kung fu until after his fight with Agent Smith in the subway, because that’s when Neo’s hard work began to show benefits.
You’ve probably experienced this in your own class, in a distinctly paraphrased manner, of course. A beginner has started attending, and for some inexplicable reason (inexplicable even to them, often enough) they’re learning your style at an accelerated rate. Okay, some people have a natural aptitude for such things, but that actually has a very limited impact on someone’s training.
The reason for their proficiency is because they already know kung fu. Or more accurately, they already have kung fu. Chances are they’ve never quantified or articulated their abilities as “kung fu” even to themselves, but kung fu it is, nonetheless.
Ask them about their hobbies, work or passions, and you’ll likely find that you’re talking to an artist, a dancer, a musician, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a fitness instructor, a chef, an author, an inventor; someone who’s previously dedicated themselves to the sincere practise of a particular skill, and has reaped the benefits of it. Benefits that are now re-emerging, consciously or subconsciously, in their new martial arts training.
They’re not learning your martial art any quicker than anyone else, yourself included, so don’t get over excited or perturbed or even jealous of their apparent natural ability. It’s not natural, it’s earned, and it could almost be offensive to suggest that they don’t need to work as hard as everybody else. The difference is that they’ve laid the groundwork in a previous activity, and learned the principles of kung fu, potentially as a side effect, of that other dedication.
I Know Kung Fu
The next time it happens at your class, when a newcomer strolls in and demonstrates an uncanny aptitude, think back to the meaning of kung fu. It’s the mark of a fine teacher, helping someone to collate their previous skills with their new martial arts training, which they probably won’t be able to do for themselves. It becomes your duty to find out about the people you’re training with, because that’s the root of the kung fu they’ve already earned and the path they’re continuing to follow with your guidance.
And the good news is that kung fu goes both ways. You’re already a dedicated and skilled martial artist, but don’t think that the lessons you’ve learned – physical, mental or spiritual – stop when you leave the training hall.
It can be applied to every aspect of your life, and not just work. Go and take a bread baking class, or learn to rock climb – something you’ve never done before – and I’m willing to bet that after a couple of lessons the teacher will voice their thoughts on your apparent natural aptitude, even though you know you possess no such thing.
And I’m not talking about adopting a perfect cat stance while kneading dough. You mustn’t (in fact, you can’t) force your existing kung fu into a new craft. That’s not what kung fu is. You’ll learn skills quickly because you already understand the principles of dedicated study, regardless as to how remote the subject might be to your martial art.
Learn to spot the kung fu in others, and you’ll begin to see it everywhere. The shelf stacker at the supermarket who never gets in the way and aligns the products perfectly with (apparently) minimal effort. The train conductor who casually strolls up and down the carriages without ever stumbling or missing a new traveller. The window washer who cleans a pane to spotless perfection with a single wipe of their cloth.
They all possess kung fu, in quantities equal to, and sometimes even more than, many martial artists. It’s humbling yet exciting to understand that your kung fu brotherhood extends to places you never thought to look for it, and as you become someone with a passion for kung fu itself, you begin to realise there are lessons to be learned in everything you see and do, which all deliver benefits to your martial arts training.
Your homework for this week, therefore, is to rewatch The Matrix, and if you haven’t seen it already, check out Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That guy has more kung fu that he has fish.