As a whole, kung fu has managed to hold onto tradition even though the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts combined with American culture has slowly influenced some changes.
Kung fu instructor Evan Thompson has been practicing kung fu since 1986. At the moment he is the only kung fu teacher in Nye County that he knows of. He lives here and teaches out of his home. Thompson is an expert in Wing Chun, Shaolin and Tai Chi.
Thompson explained the difference between styles. Wing Chun is fighting in close and conserves energy. There is not much movement in it. There are not a lot of kicks or high kicks. Everything is close to the center of the body.
“Wing Chun does not look like much. It is all close in with no wasted movements — all for fighting in close. It’s all about learning to use the body. It takes time to develop the explosive power,” the instructor said.
Tai Chi means “supreme ultimate fist.”
“It is considered one of the higher level martial arts because it has so much internal stuff. It is practiced slowly. People don’t realize it is a martial art,” Thompson explained.
Shaolin would be more of an explosive art. In this style, there are lots of kicks and strikes, which use high energy.
Thompson teaches these skills with his granddaughters and his wife Diane. It is a real family deal. His granddaughters have been learning the art for seven years and both want to be teachers. Both started at 6 and 7 and now are 13 and 14.
Diane uses it to keep in shape and be supportive to her husband. She is shy but helps him when he needs to demonstrate things to the class.
Thompson likes kung fu as a martial art because it is so well-rounded. If an MMA person was to be trained in kung fu it would be the only martial art he would need.
“Karate has some kicks and some striking,” he said. “It also has some grappling moves in it. Many other styles will have other things in it besides the one thing they specialize in. The most rounded would be Shaolin kung fu and I know I will get in trouble for saying this.”
He said the MMA craze has brought many questions about martial arts to the forefront. Fighters want to know which is the best suited to their fighting styles.
Thompson says kung fu, which is a generic term for 400 different styles, has many elements to offer people. He says many only believe kung fu has just strikes and kicks. He said this is not true. Shaolin does teach grappling, too.
“We like to say we have been mixing martial arts for 1,500 years. We have everything. We have the most weapons of any type of martial art out there,” he said. “The Japanese may have a dozen different weapons, we have over 30.”
Thompson is not saying kung fu is the best.
He explains it this way, “If people ask me, I will always say they are all fine martial arts. The real difference is how much you put into it. In general, a good karate guy could defend himself in a real-life situation if he is good at it just as well as a kung fu guy. It really comes down to the practitioner. How dedicated are you and how hard do you train in whatever art you choose?”
The training is the bottom line. He makes the point people fight how they train. He says he does not do much sparring because it can lead to bad habits. He uses this real-life example:
“A competitive fighter was out on the town and was jumped in the parking lot on his way home from a night out. He took one guy out and the other guy had a knife so he put that guy in an arm bar and the guy tapped out. The trained martial artist let him go because he was conditioned to letting people go who tap out. The mugger quickly picked up the knife and stabbed him multiple times.”
“He really got messed up all because of a trained response,” Thompson said.
The kung fu expert says over the years Americans have changed culturally. Thompson has seen similarities to American culture and the MMA culture in the way things are done.
The culture wants things done right away and wants to learn things quickly without putting the time and energy into things. MMA fighters are in a way a reflection of this culture. They, too, want things right away without putting the time into it.
Kung fu does not work this way. In kung fu, as the student learns the better they get, the less they want to fight. It gives them the ability to overcome the opponent while taking away the desire to do so.
This is contrary to MMA. Mixed martial artists would rather argue tradition to learn techniques faster. Thompson believes in MMA each fighter searches for techniques, which will give them an edge over their opponents.
“You could just learn the technique but if you go out and use it you could break your arm because the technique needs conditioning prior to use,” said sifu Thompson. Sifu means “father teacher” in Chinese.
MMA fighters want to start fighting today. kung fu has a lot to offer in the long-term, but in the short-term he said, “Not so much if you are looking for MMA. I have students that come to me all the time and ask me to teach them the cool stuff first. I tell them that they have to take the boring with the cool.”
Many of the kung fu masters will not teach “the good stuff” until you have demonstrated to them some good character traits. Thompson even said the really lethal techniques, like Mantis are only taught by invitation only.
“It is really nasty stuff and this is one of those that you want to observe character first before teaching this, and I am not going to give you a technique that you can really hurt someone with until I know you are a good guy,” he said.
Thompson believes the masters in the United States made changes in kung fu such as adding sashes to the their art as in the belt system of karate. Overall kung fu still remains an art, which takes years to master. It has not changed its traditions.
“The 10 numbered hand forms have not changed and have been with us for over a 1,000 years,” Thompson concluded.