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Thursday
Mar012012

Jibengong (Basic Work)

Dr. Ken Fish inspired a very interesting thread on Rum Soaked Fist which I’d like to draw readers attention to. (It takes a little while to get going and is up to 7 pages as I'm posting.) Fortunately, I’ve been banned from posting on the site without explanation. Frankly that’s a good thing because it required a lot of effort to monitor comments from people who regularly misunderstood and therefore freaked-out about comments I made.

Fish’s disturbing premiss is that the training secrets of Chinese martial arts masters are usually withheld at the beginning of a person’s training, not later after many years of study as is often assumed. By withholding certain types of intense, precise, and personally coached training at the beginning, a master can insure that a student stays forever at an intermediate level.

In other words, because of extensive sharing and the ease with which students change masters these days, many high level techniques have actually been written about and it has become quite possible to learn these methods, but without that more basic training these higher level techniques rarely if ever come to fruition.

It’s funny you know, from when I first started studying martial arts all the way into the early 90’s, if you wanted to insult a student from another school or someone else’s master, you would say, “You lack basic training, If you just go back and practice the basics you will have a chance of improving.” The standard retort to this insult was made famous by Bruce Lee, “You have offended my family and the Shaolin Temple, you must have grown weary of living.”

What is most striking about the thread is that Fish gives Jackie Chan as the best example of someone who has unequivocally had this basic training. He explains that the training is performative, it can be seen, and it is unmistakable. He then goes on to say repeatedly that anyone who has had professional level traditional Chinese Theater training has it, unequivocally. And that this basic training, ‘though quite rare in modern teachers of the arts, is widespread among all regional styles of Chinese theater and martial arts. (Which, I might add, should be a clue to understanding it’s origins.)

Naturally, I totally agree with him. But I would go further, I would say that a great number of higher level skills, concepts and training methods are directly accessible only through seeing the martial arts within a matrix of ritual-meditation and theater. Without accessing the original context, our only hope is reverse engineering.

In other words, you can’t just be tough, you have to act tough!

Bing Gong Bing Gong

Let me try to give readers a better idea of what this basic work (jibengong) is like by describing my own experience of learning it and trying to teach it. Kuo Lien-Ying was trained around the turn of the 20th Century in Beijing traditional theater arts, also known as Northern Shaolin. As the vicious mass movement to separate theater, religion and martial arts got underway, he moved into the martial arts camp, where he studied with many of the greatest artist of his time. He fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan in ’49 and then came to America in the 1960’s where my first teacher, Bing Gong, became his top Shaolin student.

Studying with Bing was a profound experience and we became very close.

Ye Xiaolong Ye Xiaolong

The truth is that Bing, although he spoke very little, had a strong desire to pass on the essence of this art. But sadly, hardly anyone was willing to endure the training. He would have me do very simple movements over and over again in slightly different ways until my body permanently changed.

For instance, while I held the basic monk stance, (see image below) he would order me to make small adjustments or movements while he introduced various forms of resistance. There were many eventual ‘benefits’ to this. So for example, after a time I could move my knee high enough and integrate it into my structure well enough that I could use it to block kicks to my ribs.

Take another example from Shaolin. While doing the second line of Tantui (springy legs), which is a very straight forward punch, punch, punch-kick combination, Bing would have me freeze with my

Paulie Zink Paulie Zink

outstretched leg up above hip level. Then he would have me move it higher and he would test it for connection or integration in various ways. And then we’d do the same on the other side--over and over, day after day, week after week. Again, until the ability was permanent.

Bing also kicked me a lot. He wouldn’t tell me how to get into a stance, he would kick me into it. Although I can point to a lot of different learning methods that I have experienced over the years which could account for the gongfu in my legs, nothing else was really as profound as that.

As I’m sure readers can surmise, these things are not complex to teach or to learn, but actually getting the student to do the work is unusual. I guess I liked it when Bing kicked me because I never asked, “Why are you doing that?” nor did I respond emotionally by making a face as most students do. How do you explain to a student that they are not to make a face? Trying to explain it is like making a problem on top of a problem, it just doesn’t work.
I think anyone who has done professional dance training will understand this instinctively. As one of my dance teachers put it, “Some people know how to take corrections and some people don’t.”

I could say things about all of my teachers in regards to jibengong, but I’m just going to mention two more, the first is Ye Xiaolong. Geroge Xu brought Ye over from Shanghai one Spring in the early 90’s because George himself wanted to learn from him and they both taught class together. But then suddenly in late May, George got his long awaited “Green Card” and shortly there after he flew to Europe to teach. He left Ye by himself to teach classes in San Francisco and arranged for us to get him back and forth from his house to the park. But as there was no translation, only two of us came to class for the whole Summer. He taught us for 100 days, everyday for about 3 hours. We concentrated on about five exercises which we did over and over. Ye constantly had his hands on us, making corrections, pushing, resisting, kicking and saying, “Bu hao,” (no good). We actually did a lot of push hands too, but it was never competitive, it was done as a kind of cooperative power stretch. The effects were permanent.

Paulie Zink deserves a mention here also because I believe he is an international living treasure specifically because he has the worlds largest collection of jibengong. As he put it to me, “I don’t teach martial arts anymore because I have yet to find anyone who is willing to do the preliminary work.”

Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance

Reader Comments (6)

I would say that very few teachers actually teach the fundamentals nowadays. What you're describing is, to me, the fundamentals. Instead you have teachers teaching "forms."

If the teacher doesn't give a shit about their students, why teach at all?...for some teachers it's for money, or because they just can't do anything else...A lot of the "great" 20th Century martial arts masters had "real jobs" - engineers, small businesses, etc. They taught martial arts because they wanted to pass something special along.

Theater-based teaching is a little simpler, because the economic aspect is locked into the performance aspect. The teacher is paid if the students perform well. There's a lot of incentive to get students (by any means necessary) into "shape."

But I'd be surprised if many theater-based teachers go into depth about body-completeness aspects of the movements they teach. Just because they can "dance" well doesn't mean they're connected.

So the current generation of "great teachers" is significantly reduced by economic strain and time constraints. The good student is still out there, but maybe in another city, state or country.

You can teach them "forms," but you can't get into their bodies and change them without direct contact. And without financial backing and time, neither stand much of a chance.

I think it's interesting that the burgeoning of Chinese martial arts occurred in places and in times when financial and time constraints were a small concern - in rural areas or monasteries, during times of relative peace when practice could occur regularly without interruption...

In other words - In today's world, how do you create the environment that supports great teachers and good students?

March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Well I could make a long list of possible exceptions but basically I disagree, the training is visible to the trained observer. It is performable. "Connection" of various sorts, is highly visible. That's why it was such a shame that Jet Li did that stupid movie where he split in half during time travel and one half did xingyi and the other half did bagua. It was obvious he didn't have the training to do that. In other words, even though he has a lot of great basic training, experience and talent, he does not have the higher level internal skills and it is visually obvious.
It is still an open question what the social/economic conditions are which foster a great teaching milieu. If it is true that the great innovations in Martial Arts came out of the mid-to-late Ming, then the rise of commerce is the most distinct element of that time. Huge numbers of men and women were getting educated as scholars because their parents had healthy incomes, and yet there were only a limited number of government positions for them. The book I'm reading about that time (and I'm going to blog about this later) suggests that instead of our current "real vs. illusory" dichotomy, they were riffing off of a "illusory vs. disillusionment" dichotomy.
I do not believe that economic constraints are real. I lived on way less than people do now during my 20's. I do think people are possessed by fantasy and entertainments, a Faustian sort of thing. I also think a great many young people are money management incompetent. But whatever, you are right that the time-money matrix is hovering around and sticking it's nose in anything anyone tries to do!

March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott P. Phillips

In my view, it is all about commercialisation of the arts. Western and eastern CMA teachers, who live on teaching nowadays, have to consider a happy, returning student. Trad. masters, with real jobs, who taught to pass on an art, easily watched students come in and leave after first encounters of bitterness. Their problem is/was finding a successor who would honour the complete curriculum and go on teaching it, unchanged.
After having gone through jibengong here in TW several time, with different teachers, I tried to go the middle way in teaching in EU, keeping training interesting, but I failed to ingrane real basics, so most of my students have a hard time to develope real gongfu.
Still, when I remember my first 3 months, doing jibengong here, streching, breathing and footwork, for 3 hrs a day, 6 days a week, I was often about to quitt or turn crazy, so...

March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBai Yiming

I'm not sure Jet Li has the type of "fundamental" training I'm referring to.

This is perhaps the breakdown between the "martial" aspects of MA and the "performance" or "dance" aspects.

Learning how to do MA-type-moves in a "dance" fashion is not MA fundamentals. It is dance-fundamentals.

Very different.

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Bai Yiming, thanks for the perspective. The commercialization of peoples expectations is a problem, mainly because it is hard to price a kinesthetic experience you or your kids are going to experience sometime in the future. Teachers and students are both pricing their time and effort in relationship to other things they could be doing or learning. As with most art, it lives in the world of commerce but is creative in a realm outside of commerce. Still, commerce makes it available in a way that people in the past could only dream of.

Josh, back in the 80's and 90's the term "wushu" was an insult. It meant you did not have real gongfu. So, on that basis I would like to agree with you. But Jet Li does have some mojo, I probably shouldn't have brought him up because I realize I'm not that comfortable talking about his specific skills and training. But speaking generally-- I do think that training for performance can, and often does, have real martial aspects to it. A great spinning butterfly kick can be extremely effective in a confined, walled, space against a larger attacker. It can add one heck of a lot of chaos to a situation where someone is trying to restrain you. That's why I keep arguing that performance skills and martial skills are part of a larger body of overlapping and mutually supporting experiences.
I just read Jet Li's bio on IMBD, it said that he directed one film and that one of his reasons for doing it was to be in charge of making more realistic fight scenes--and that the film succeeded at that, 'though not at the box office.

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott P. Phillips

I think that learning forms the correct way also serves the same function. I train praying mantis in China, when I learn a form, it typically takes 3-6 months, every movement is practiced like jibengong, taken out and drilled over and over until perfection. Only then can you get the next move.

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill

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