When one’s personal safety and sense of security are at risk, there is a need for self-defense – a very primal response. In many urban settings, gang culture and street-corner societies served as surrogate families to the have-nots or want-nots of the 1960s and 1970s. They were a menace to communities and undermined the quality of life of their respective neighborhoods.
In America, it was also a time television audiences first witnessed the kung fu of Kato when he fought Lo Sing in the episode of the Green Hornet called The Preying Mantis in 1966. It was quick and captivating, left viewers wondering what kind of karate this was, and introduced a newcomer named Bruce Lee.
His reappearance as Winslow Wong, a whirlwind wrecking machine in the movie Marlowe (1969), left audiences wanting more. In 1971, he returned in the role of Li Chung for a four-episode cameo on the television show Long Street. And, in 1973, Bruce Lee had become a household name after starring in 4 feature films: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973) – arguably his most famous film. Game of Death was unfinished and posthumously released following his premature death on July 20, 1973.
While the 1960s introduced Bruce Lee, the 1970s immortalized him. In the meantime, on network television, a series actually called Kung fu (1972-1975) portrayed the adventures of a Shaolin devotee in the American Old West played by David Carradine. And, in 1974, the elite members of The Beijing Wushu Team which included Jet Li, demonstrated their national art form on The White House lawn for former President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Teens in particular flocked to kung fu schools to become educated in the ways of Chinese self-defense. They escape the hopeless future of gang life, and empower themselves to confront life’s continual hardships. It made them realize that if they could endure sitting in a perfect horse stance for what always seemed to be an eternity. They could achieve anything through the same hard work and effort over time – which is the definition of kung fu.
It was usual for practitioners to train for hours because there were no distractions such as cell phones or Internet. And for some, the training hall served as a sanctuary from the savagery of street life.
To top it off, the Shaw Brothers – Hong Kong’s biggest film production company, fueled the insatiable appetite of kung fu aficionados with a steady stream of martial arts movies, elevating the likes of Gordon Liu – The Master Killer of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and The Five Deadly Venoms to a cult-following status. This fulfilled the practitioner’s need to emulate both the inspiring athletics and martial ethics in the movie’s role models. Ironically, learning how to severely injure an adversary gave rise to a paradoxical appreciation for an individual’s sanctity of life.
With local and global economies experiencing expansion and advancements, the tide was shifting. And the times were changing in the 1980s. There was an overall good feel to the 1980s: people introduced MTV to the world; pop culture greatly shaped mainstream life; they conceived the term ‘young-urban-professional, or yuppie; technology today was emerging with groundbreaking home appliances such as the video cassette recorder and the pager on the mobile.
With regard to kung fu, while there was a desire to try out one’s skill, there was no need to field test it on the streets as it was once necessary for one’s safety and survival. The new setting and unchartered context spawned a need for competitive venues to establish safe and standards-based criteria for practitioners to validate their training and skills.
Hence, people promoted Chinese martial arts competitions in the mid-80s. It became a platform for practitioners to train purposefully and compete in both forms and fighting. Along with the shift in practice from self-defense to self-refinement, people adapted more sportsmanship conduct which reinforced the concept of wu de, or martial morality. They typically emphasized it in most kung fu schools and central to the inspirational movies that had flooded the grind houses of the late 70s and early 80s.
Consequently, at tournaments, people presented introductions to previously unseen kung fu styles and systems. They formed many friendships too. And they established a network of amicable practitioners well before the Internet interconnected everyone with each other.
By the mid-80s, Ninja phase of martial cinema had replaced the kung fu movies. They no longer had the potency to inspire or amass a following as they had before. As competitors phased out of the Chinese tournament circuit or graduated to judging, they often continued to practice martial arts out of the dedication, devotion, and passion ingrained within them. It often justified the need to maintain some standard of practice or activity. The more ambitious practitioners opened schools or instructed in parks with the hopes of passing on their respective arts.
On November 12, 1993, The UFC exposed the world to Brazilian jiu-jitsu and inadvertently ushered in a new era of MMA. Traditional kung fu styles faced an unprecedented dilemma. They remained in a martial bubble or explore and adapt practices to accommodate this brave new competitively combative world. The answer depended on the practitioner’s desire, or possibly need, to choose one over the other. This was not a question with a right or wrong answer; it was just a matter of personal preference.
While kung fu is a tool, it is not a gavel; People shouldn’t use such decisions to judge the quality of a practitioner’s character, or diminish the quality of his beliefs. They should instead view it as a gauge of one’s personal growth.
With the new millennium comes a major societal shift – aging Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Within this population, the focus is on how healthcare will look for these individuals. In relation to kung fu, people address the need of the aging process through TaiJi and qigong exercises. Daily routines employing these energizing movements infused with optimizing breath management promote longevity and healthier lifestyles. Not only is kung fu about self-reflection in this milieu, it is about self-preservation.
Those who benefit most today from kung fu are the individuals in web-kung, finger-fu in our ever-growing cyber-society. Instead of technology being assistive, it is beginning to become definitive.
The need for kung fu today is not only about punching, kicking, leveraging, or throwing an adversary. It is more about reclaiming a sense of humanity in the face of overwhelming and ubiquitous tech. And the only way to achieve that is to actually have kung fu in your toolkit with the knowledge.