Reproduction of an article published in the September / October 2010 issue of Kung Fu Magazine.
“Learning, training, teaching, even now it’s all the same,” Master Paul Chau shrugs. Whip thin and roughly six feet tall, with a wiry mane of black hair he looks every inch the image of a traditional Kung Fu instructor. Having founded Northern Black Dragon Martial Arts in 1972, only a year after coming here from Hong Kong, he seems to have been doing something right.
I had asked him how long he had been teaching martial arts but my question missed the mark somewhat. As far as Master Chau is concerned there is no division between teacher and learner, one must be an eternal student, welcoming new knowledge, to progress.
His father was a high ranking officer in the Kuomintang. Originally from the north, he traveled across the breadth of China and even into neighbouring countries with the army, surviving the vicissitudes that marked the region for the first half of the twentieth century before fleeing to Hong Kong as the People’s Liberation Army consolidated Communist control over the mainland.
“My father was open-minded,” Master Chau says, “because he traveled so much he gained a lot of knowledge a lot of other sifus didn’t have access to.”
I ask Master Chau about his early experience training and he tells me he has been training since 1957. “Our martial arts school,” he says, speaking of his father’s school, “was very different from most of the others because we had all kinds of teachers. We didn’t discriminate on the basis of where a teacher was from. North, south, it doesn’t matter.”
The roots of his family style draw heavily on the traditions of the Northern Kung Fu; this is why the school, located on the western edge of the south-western Ontario city of London is called Northern Black Dragon, homage to his heritage.
The scion of a northern Chinese family, displaced to Hong Kong in the south, who later traveled to Canada – the country he now calls home – Master Chau has a heritage that is marked by dichotomies; north and south, east and west, tradition and change.
He prefers not to see these as contradictions though. He frequently mentions the yin and yang, drawing on the powerful idea of opposites which together form a balanced whole. This informs his worldview and his view on the traditions of Chinese Martial arts.
The Problem of Tradition
Tradition can be a tricky thing. Master Chau recognizes this. “How long does it take for something to become a tradition?” he asks.
“The styles of the north had very strong kicking, they influenced Tae Kwon Do,” he says, “Our kicking style comes from Northern China.” He pauses for a moment, rubs his chin perfunctorily, as if in thought and then says, “Our hand techniques too, but we fuse them with southern styles.”
Reflecting back to his early days in Hong Kong he says, “Our martial arts at that time you could have almost called mixed martial arts. We had ground fighting techniques, throwing techniques, kick boxing and even boxing.”
Master Chau is very fond of boxing.
“Sometimes western people look to the east to learn martial arts and think that they have everything. Certainly after I came over here, as an easterner coming to the west I eventually came to understand the culture. But even before I came here I was already fond of Boxing.”
In boxing the fight is paramount. A boxer who cannot take a hit, who cannot throw a punch, is not truly a boxer. And yet, in the traditional martial arts this phenomenon, the master who will not fight, is sadly common.
“They would never spar with their students,” Master Chau’s eyes flash as he speaks of some sifus he encountered throughout his extensive career in the Martial Arts, “The problem is that they learned the technique and they thought it would work but the more they teach the more they believed that they were some kind of superman, that they could do it.
Put them in for some free sparring, they fall apart.”
I ask him if he considers himself to be a traditional sifu.
He frowns. He sees a flaw in the question. “Tradition” is a word open to interpretation. Eventually, after some deliberation, he says “I do see myself as a traditional sifu. I adhere to the philosophical principles of Chinese Martial Arts. I also uphold the values of respect and humility which are an important tradition regardless.”
This, of course, raises the question of what constitutes a tradition, what makes a martial art traditional. The historical origins of Wing Chun appear to coincide with the career of Leung Jan (梁贊), born in 1826. Does this make it a fraction less traditional than Hung Gar? After all, the latter emerges from legend and into history with Wong Kei Ying (黄麒英), who was in all likelihood a decade older than Leung Jan.
What of Brazilian Jiu Jutsu? Helio Gracie, the founder of the system, was teaching martial arts by 1929. Eighty years is considerably longer than the average lifespan of a person. Is Brazilian Jiu Jutsu thus traditional? Is it enough for an art to outlive its founder? What then of modern performance Wushu, codified in the late fifties? Is it less traditional than BJJ just because it is younger?
“I find the term, “traditional,” can be very misguiding. The traditions that matter are the cultural ones. Respect, humility. My way of thinking is that we should adopt changes. Martial arts have become more advanced. Techniques that were secret weapons a hundred years ago are common today. Martial arts must advance; it can not go backward. Go forward or else you’re left behind,” Master Chau clarifies.
Clearly if we try to codify the idea of tradition based merely on the persistence of a set of behaviours we run into some rather profound stumbling blocks.
Some people might seek to define tradition then as some sort of litmus test for the purity of a martial art. A person might claim his martial art is traditional because he still teaches the forms and concepts of his sifu’s sifu’s sifu. He might claim the authority of tradition because his martial art is only Hong Kong, only Northern Chinese, only from one nation.
But then this implies that martial arts are hemmed in by national boundaries. And this is a claim that can easily be demonstrated to be false.
Martial Arts Have No Boundaries
I ask Master Chau about Jiu Jitsu, another martial art not usually mentioned in the same breath as traditional CMA and another martial art for which he has a great respect.
He says to me, “In the beginning Chinese Kung Fu had Shuai Jiao and some people claim that Judo came from Shuai Jiao. I don’t like to get involved in this sort of politics because, as far as I’m concerned, Martial Arts have no borders.”
Martial Arts have no borders. At first, living as we do in a world where martial arts have been so carefully delineated by style, family of style, nation of style, type of style, this seems to contradict the evidence available to us. There is CMA and JMA, MMA and traditional martial arts, there are so many boundaries that we set around the ideas of martial arts.
But are they valid? I am a Canadian. My ancestors hailed from Ireland and Scotland. I practice Chinese Martial Arts. Why are they Chinese? Is it because the man who taught me them was Chinese?
“I returned to Hong Kong few times. Each time, when I was over there, I found myself missing Canada. I like the landscape here. Open, ok, vast... And the clean air; in general it’s a great country and I fell in love with it, with Canada, especially London, which was just about a perfect place for me, neither too big nor too small.” He says.
Master Chau has made Canada his home for the better part of thirty-eight years. Though most of his martial arts learning come from Chinese sources it certainly doesn’t represent the totality of his understanding.
“Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed grappling,” he says, “I’ve been doing arm bars for nearly as long as I could walk.”
What makes my martial arts Chinese, what makes them Kung Fu at all?
For me, I can say it is because my love of martial arts is connected to a matrix of interests I have surrounding Chinese culture, art, philosophy and literature. These other traditions, not at all martial, are bound so tightly with my understanding of martial arts that they lend a Chinese character to my interpretation of this boundless section of human endeavour called martial arts.
This is what makes the Chinese / Japanese / Celtic and Mediterranean martial arts I have learned Kung Fu – for me.
But Master Chau suggests I may be mistaken to suggest that this is Kung Fu. He says Kung Fu isn’t an object, it’s a process.
Kung Fu Isn’t a Noun “As far as I’m concerned though, Kung Fu is not a noun. It’s a verb. It is continuing, moving, studying, learning, and teaching,” Master Chau leans forward in his seat, his expression serious.
Kung fu isn’t something you study. It is a way of approaching the things you study. It is literally hard work.
Here, finally, lies the key to the true traditions of Kung Fu. We don’t find the traditions of Kung Fu in the order of the movements within a form. The tradition is not rooted in using Iron Rings instead of barbells. Tradition is not a way of bowing.
Traditions are much more nebulous than that. They represent the manner in which we approach the martial arts.
China has lent us two very disparate set of traditions. One set is hide-bound. It is a careful ledger book detailing master and student; it is rigid adherence to formulae learned by rote, practiced by rote. This is, sadly, a very real tradition of Chinese Martial arts.
Fortunately it is not the only tradition we can apply to the martial arts. Gan Bao (干宝) was an historian in the eastern Jin dynasty. He compiled together a set of Chinese folk tales the common thread of which was an idea of nature as ever-changing.
This idea, that the world itself is built out of patterns of change, is a tradition that can be applied to Kung Fu. This does not mean we must abandon all that is good of Chinese Martial Arts, far from it; we should embrace the true traditions.
A very wise man once said, “We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.”
Kung Fu is merely the act of working hard. It is our choice to direct that hard work toward a changing and growing, living process or to a relic as brittle and fragile as a terra cotta warrior. We, as practitioners of Kung Fu, should understand that we do not need to abandon those traditions that make our martial art the beautiful and distinct thing which it is to grow and change with an evolving world. That process of growth and change is among the very best of the traditions we should uphold.
Simon McNeil is a writer and his life-long fascination with Chinese martial arts led him half way around the world to China. He returned to Canada with a continued love of CMA, Chinese language, literature and culture. He can be reached at Simonm233@gmail.com. Master Chau is the founder of Northern Black Dragon Martial arts, one of the longest operating and most respected Martial Arts schools in South Western Ontario, at 1075 Sarnia Road, London, Ontario, Canada. Discover more about Northern Black Dragon Martial Arts on the web at