Sifu Henry Poo Yee was a teacher of Southern Mantis. Southern Mantis and my own Northern Mantis have no connection to each other besides sharing a name. However, I have great respect for Sifu Yee’s students; they are brothers in Kung-Fu and he was an amazing teacher who’s legacy lives on to this day.
I remember being at a tournament, watching Sifu Yee’s students compete. They are hard men, trained hard by their teacher and by their older kung-fu brothers, their Si-Hing. I remember seeing one of them going against a kickboxer. The kickboxer was in superb physical condition, his well-muscled body covered with tatoos. His boxing footwork was fast and changeable. Against him was one of Sifu Yee’s students. The young man was obviously no athlete but he stood awaiting the match with a surprising calm. When the signal to begin was given the kickboxer began dancing, hiding his intention behind his maneuverability. Sifu Yee’s student assumed a posture showing the “Begging Hand”; a lead hand that twitched slightly. Anyone familiar with the style knows that this is a sign of the fast snap muscles in the body awaiting the right moment. In an instant, the kickboxer threw a fast, mid-level round kick. At that same moment Yee’s student made what appeared to be a convulsive snap with his midsection with the result that the elbow and the knee of one side came together; scissoring the kickboxer’s kicking leg mid-flight. Immediately Yee’s student followed up with what appeared to be an uppercut to the kickboxer’s body. The tattooed fighter slumped over the young man’s fist as the referees descended; separating the two men. Subsequently, they declared Yee’s student disqualified for excessive contact.
I hurried around the ring to Sifu Yee’s student, shook hands and had my picture made with him. I understood that, according to their rules, he had transgressed but I could not help but acknowledge the superb technique the young man had demonstrated.
Having Kung-Fu is a concept that is unknown to most of the martial arts community and even more so to those not practicing. Kung-Fu is not a technique; for example, it is not the shape of a fist, a kind of kick or a method of throwing an opponent. There are styles of Kung-Fu, to be sure, but the Kung-Fu of a style is not found in a stance or in a way of fighting. Instead one’s Kung-Fu has to do with a change in the very physical nature of the person practicing.
For example, if you travel to England and go to Sherwood Forest, they have a display there of the kinds of things one would encounter during the times of Robinhood and his merry men. (By the way, even the meaning of the words have changed. “Merry men”, in that day, were men of great martial prowess. The term referred to warriors who might side with or against the ruler of the day. They were to be given consideration, where they were not granted deference. Thus, the verse in the Christmas song, “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay”, because you definitely did not want these men dismayed).
Nonetheless, when I went to Sherwood forest, I met a man. He was about 5’4”, and had a very welcoming manner. He told us about the forest and the legend of Robin Hood. He then pulled a long bow from behind a wall. He drew the bow to its fullest length. He then gave it to the biggest man in the room and asked that he draw it. We were all surprised to find that he could not. The smaller man explained that he had been drawing that bow since he was a child and that the very tendons of his body have adjusted and strengthened so that he could. Today, as we excavate old battlefields in France, the archeologists can tell who were the bowmen in the battle by the uneven development of the bones of the right and left side of the body.
So it is with Kung-Fu. One’s Kung-Fu is found in the very nature of the practitioner’s body. In class, as we practice, we strike and make contact in very controlled ways. It enables the practitioner who is hitting to feel what it is like to make contact and to react to it, continuing on to other technique. No one talks about it, but the day comes when the student of Kung-Fu is explaining to someone not in class how a technique works. When they do, the Kung-Fu student will gently hit his friend and inevitably, the non-practitioner howls in pain. Surprised, the new student asks what is wrong. Then they hear how they have struck the other with such force that it hurt. The student does not realize that, over many months, their tendons and bones have been conditioned and now what would be debilitating to a “normal” person is nothing to them.
Likewise, there are other kinds of Kung-Fu. In mantis, one throws punches using muscles in the intercostals. Over time one is capable of creating tremendous force. The average person is incapable of creating such force; those muscles are not developed in regular activity. In Wing Chun the arms are taught to interpret the direction and force of a strike executed so close that one cannot react fast enough using sight, even if one is trained. Only through Chi Sao, the contact reflex exercise of the art can such reactions be achieved.
There are many different kinds of Kung-Fu. Each of them are developed through the basic exercises of the style being practiced. The student of Kung-Fu does these exercises usually not knowing that they are the secret of the master’s abilities. In former times, this was part of the weeding out process; would a student perceiver with an exercise when no obvious benefit was explained.
Being in good physical shape is always a plus. Good cardio vascular health, endurance, strength are all positives in one’s life. However, these are not the signs of one who has good Kung-Fu; only by adhering to the exercises that develop one’s Kung-Fu does one get that ability. The Chinese say, Lian quan bu lian gong, dao lao yi chang kong, which means, lian, (to practice) quan, (the fist or techniques of a style) bu lian gong, (but you don’t practice the special exercises of the style), dao lao, (when you are old), yi chang kong, (it will all have been for nothing). The idea is that the physical changes of the Kung-Fu go with one throughout one’s life, where the infirmity of age will take away one’s ability to simply perform technique.
Today, as I practice a fundamental technique, I remember these lessons. A student will watch and observe, “Sifu still practices the most basic things”. I respond, “The secret is in the basics”.