Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: The Tao of Gung Fu

Title: The Tao of Gung Fu, A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art
Author: Bruce Lee
Editor: John Little

Lightning review

For philosophically-inclined martial arts students (especially those learning kung fu) this book will be inspirational, while instructors will appreciate how Lee explains abstract concepts like yin-yang, wu-wei, and what it means to "be like water", making them accessible, attractive, and applicable.

Bruce who?

Although the actor and martial artist Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of only 32, his accomplishments nevertheless paved the way for kung fu to cross over into mainstream Western culture. His film performances were thrilling, his fights spectacular yet largely believable, his manner charismatic and highly engaging. Something of Lee's philosophical approach to life and martial arts came through in these performances and even more so in interviews, and the fact that he died so soon after achieving stardom and in somewhat mysterious circumstances contributed to his mystique.

An iconic fight scene: avenging his sister's death

At the same time as he was performing on screen Lee was also developing his own eclectic approach to martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do. Claiming the mantle of a modernist Lee portrayed his approach as superior to "the classical mess" of traditional martial arts, favouring self-expression and formlessness over adherence to tradition.

The foundation of Lee's martial arts skill was established in around five years of dedicated training in Wing Chun kung fu under prominent master Yip Man, whose life-story has been dramatised in the recent Ip Man film trilogy. Something of a prodigy, Lee had a voracious appetite for training and learning. Where instruction was not forthcoming he would experiment and cross-pollinate by exploring other martial arts methods and integrating aspects into his approach.

As an interviewee, even when faced with ordinary questions, Lee makes a fascinating subject:

All this adds up to a legacy like no other. The evidence of Lee's charisma, athleticism, and aspects of his philosophy survive on screen, while Bruce Lee books and merchandise continue to sell, and Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun enjoy a degree of popularity worldwide.

The Tao of Gung Fu

This book is a posthumous publication of a collection of Bruce Lee's writings on Chinese martial arts, edited by John Little.

Tao (pronounced "dow") means way or path and signifies an approach to knowledge that cannot be grasped purely intellectually, but that can be attained through dedication and experience. It is a Chinese word, linked also to the native Chinese religion / spirituality of Taoism. Similarly, Gung Fu (an alternative spelling of kung fu) literally means skill from long practice and dedication, which could in principle apply to the practice of anything, but colloquially has come to refer to the Chinese martial arts.

In his book Bruce Lee describes his approach to the Chinese martial arts, and seeks to frame his over-arching philosophy in terms of selected pieces of ancient wisdom drawn from the classic work of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (the "Book of the Way of Virtue").

You cannot learn martial arts from a book, but good books make useful adjuncts to study. This text is primarily intended to convey something of the mindset necessary for learning kung fu, or at least Bruce Lee's account of what worked for him.

Lee is at his best making abstract notions accessible.

For example, he describes Yang and yin as universal opposites. Each contains an element of the other and they can be understood to complement rather than compete. To emphasise one over the other is a mistake. Lee gives the lovely physical analogy of pedalling a bicycle: it won't work if you push on both pedals at once! Linguistically, he observes that Chinese characters representing opposites often come together to form a new concept: good plus bad make quality, buying and selling together construct trade. In a martial arts context Lee instructs the student to seek out these complementary opposites: hardness / softness, attack / defence, striking / blocking. Each includes an element of the other, as illustrated in the yin-yang symbol.

Lee makes a strong case for dedicated training. The central problem of learning is that one goes from ignorance, but with the saving grace of spontaneity (assuming one isn't too inhibited) to being overly conscious and hence stilted. By sufficient practice and training one can return to spontaneity and intuitiveness, but with the advantage of now being skilled. What Lee describes aligns with the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition and the Four Stages of Competence. There's also an element of "Keep it Simple (Stupid)". One of Lee's preferred stratagems against a less skilful opponent is what he terms the stop-hit, wherein the opponent starts an attack, but the defender executes a counter-attack before the assailant has completed his technique. The beauty of the stop-hit is that the opponent is committed to a course of action, so if you can do it there's little chance of his adjusting. To be that fast you need to be reactive and lightning quick: there's certainly no time for conscious thought. The difficulty is you need to be really fast, both in reflex and execution. All of this has antecedents in the classical martial arts, but Lee explains the concepts beautifully.

The best anecdote in the book concerns Lee's personal realisation of the Taoist notion of wu wei or non-striving, that he would summarise as "be like water":
When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “[Bruce], preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.” 
After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water. 
Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.
What a wonderful description of the thrill of discovering something personally meaningful in your training. How much better to realise this for yourself than be handed it on a plate!


What's so inspirational about Lee is that he was able to take what he learned through kung fu and run with it. One of my favourite proverbs is "The Master will show you one corner of the room, but it's up to you to find the other three." Bruce Lee certainly went searching for those other corners, and found some good stuff. Most of what he found was known before, but he succeeded in making what he found his own.

Much of what Bruce Lee espoused has strong antecedents in the classical martial arts, and my recommendation for a future edition would be to include some illuminating commentary and cite earlier sources.

Bruce Lee was never the last word in martial arts, but his writings and films continue to inspire.

My review copy of The Tao of Gung Fu was provided by the publisher, Tuttle.


James said...

It would be awesome to get my hands on this book. Who doesn’t know and like the charisma of Bruce Lee?