The meaning of the word “kung fu” runs deep. Most of us would say it refers to the traditional Chinese martial arts or specifically the art associated with Shaolin Temple. However, when we examine the Chinese characters for kung fu, we learn that together they literally mean “effort.” And this makes sense for martial arts because mastery requires great effort.
If you work hard to improve your skill, eventually you might become a sifu, a term most Westerners associate with being a kung fu master. But actually, a sifu can be any skilled worker, including a driver or a handyman. The irony for those who speak Chinese and who watched the Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith is that Jackie Chan was both a handyman and a martial arts master, both of which can be a sifu.
Whether at the institute, at Shaolin or at my traditional wrestling school in Beijing, I noticed that the old sifu often spoke in chengyu. The explanations contained within their chengyu were like parables. Often they made no sense at all, but if the recipient was patient, the meaning would be revealed. Each one followed a similar pattern. To illustrate, one of my sifu enunciated four characters: “Wen ji qi wu.” In Chinese, characters compose words, but each one is not necessarily a complete word on its own. Those particular characters translated to “Smell the chicken and dance,” which wasn’t very enlightening. So after saying them, the sifu had to explain which word each character represented. Wen, he said, means “to smell” in traditional Chinese, but in this case, he was using the older meaning of “to listen.” The next character he explained was ji, as in gongji, or rooster.The third character was qi, as in qichuang, which means “to get out of bed.”Finally came wu, which is part of wujian, or “to do the sword dance” or engage in sword practice. It resulted in “Practice the sword when the roosters crow.” Then he went on to explain the relevance. You should get up early in the morning and begin training at the break of dawn.
It seemed like the older and wiser a sifu was, the more chengyu he or she used. Consequently, speeches and discussions often became nothing more than a chengyu, followed by an explanation, followed by the next chengyu and so on. One day my sifu, said, “Tian xia wu di,” The explanation is “ Tian is ‘sky’ or ‘heaven.’ Xia is ‘under.’ Wu is ‘without.’ And di is from diren, or ‘enemy.’ So if you are under the sky with no enemy, there is no one who can beat you. Therefore, you are wudi, or invincible.
My sifu also said, “The essence of fighting is da shuai na.”Then he elaborated: “Ti is from ti tui, which means ‘kicking.’ Da is from daquan, which means ‘punching.’ Shuai is from shuai jiao, which means ‘wrestling.’ And na is from qin na, which means ‘grabbing and joint locking.’” Clearly, even hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, Chinese masters knew about MMA.
The final chengyu I’ll mention here is the one I had to remember throughout my studies and my training in China, and I treasure it to this day. It translates to “Diligent study, bitter practice.” We have to study diligently, and we must practice hard. We’ll experience discomfort and suffering — that’s the “bitter” — but we’ll be happy with the results.
by Antonio Graceffo