If only it were as easy as in The Matrix. I’d love to be able to plug myself in and learn all the amazing varieties of martial arts that exist, they’re all so fascinatingly different! To most people though a martial art is a martial art, all similar to each other. That’s actually what I thought at the beginning of my kung fu journey…
Recall in a previous post (Why Sheepchase?) that I’d had a mental breakdown when I was around twenty years old and had moved back to live with my parents (when my agoraphobia eventually improved I would move out and live in a house in the same town). As I convalesced I began thinking about learning a martial art for self-defense. In my hometown the main martial art that was taught was Taekwondo, a Korean art that’s mostly learnt as a sport, with rankings and competitions. So I was sort of thinking about giving that a go, but, being shy I never seriously looked into it. When I was a child one of my best friends did Karate, but I recall watching a Karate class and thinking it looks rather scarily regimented and, well, difficult, and so I turned down his offer of trying that.
You see I didn’t consider myself to be a sporty person. At all. P.E. classes at school had quickly knocked any potential sporting ability right out of me. I was unfit, so being forced to do cross-country running was torture. I have a chip on my shoulder about the way sports were (are?) taught at school. Essentially they weren’t taught if you weren’t already good at them. The teachers would pour praise on the sporty students and push them to improve but for those of us who didn’t have sporty interests or sporty friends we were just expected to know stuff and when we couldn’t do things we were punished by being made to do pushups. Quite why we couldn’t have one lesson introducing the rules of a sport before actually having to play it I’ll never know…
But it’s not really true to say I didn’t enjoy all sports. Actually I loved windsurfing and regularly went to do that, having been introduced to it via my father who got into dinghy sailing. The best thing about windsurfing was that it wasn’t a team sport. Team sports absolutely suck for those who were bullied at school (i.e. me). Windsurfing was like freedom.
Anyway, back to kung fu. So, I was in my early twenties and still convalescing. My first venture into the world of martial arts was taking classes in Qigong (basically moving meditation and breathing, a bit like tai chi) from a guy who turned out to be a bit of a fraud but at least it gave me somewhere to go and some stretching. I don’t remember the full details about the guy except that he had a Taekwondo background and a lot of the movements seemed to be slower versions of Taekwondo techniques… Probably the less said about that the better.
So I was mulling about taking up Taekwondo, but too shy to actually go to a class. And then a friend told me about a poster for a new class starting that taught Wing Chun Kung Fu. I didn’t know a single thing about kung fu, but my friend suggested we go check it out together and that appealed greatly to me—having someone there to hold my hand!
The first class was an overview of the system taught by the teacher who had travelled up from London. He was a Chinese guy who had learned Wing Chun from Yip Man in Hong Kong, the teacher of Bruce Lee (my teacher started before Bruce Lee joined). In the 1970s he’d opened his Wing Chun school in London and this was going to be a new class in the North of England. After getting us to do some basic stretching and strength exercises we went straight into learning how to punch and block punches. We learned the special way of standing and stepping and a basic kick.
Contrary to my expectations, I absolutely loved it. I was hooked from the very beginning. The class was regimented but everything was demonstrated and explained before we practiced with a partner. It seemed so systematic. There were people there of differing abilities and for once I didn’t feel like I was the worst (I would later work out that I’m sort of a slow learner but have good retention when I’ve learned it). The teacher and his upper students were scary as hell, but mostly because they took it seriously as a way of fighting. Although the moves looked weird (Wing Chun Kung Fu is not known for looking particularly macho) the way they were demonstrated seemed effective, especially to a beginner with no knowledge like me.
That was twenty-five years ago. I continued going to classes until I moved to Japan and now I have my own students. I’ll write more about the actual kung fu (and some other styles that I’ve sampled) in a future post, but it’s no lie to say that kung fu for a long time has been one of the most important aspects of my life. It’s strange how things happen; if I hadn’t fallen ill and moved back to my hometown, if I hadn’t been nudged by a friend to go to that first class, such a huge part of my life wouldn’t have unfolded as it has done.