Jeet Kune Do and putting the Chu’an back into Tai Chi Chu’an.
Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about the philosophy of Tai Chi and it’s similarities to Bruce Lee’s martial art, Jeet Kune Do.
As most people know, Bruce Lee shot to fame in the sixties and seventies by way of starring in big budget Kung Fu films and a short lived American TV series called The Green Hornet. Since then, his work off screen has arguably become more successful and respected than his work on it. Many martial artists have become actors, but none have managed to secure a lasting legacy like his, and this is in part due to the fact that he wasn’t simply a leading man who could perform his own stunts. His own personal philosophy was applied to the way he fought, which led to the creation of Jeet Kune Do.
Essentially a precursor to the mixed martial arts training that is prevalent nowadays, JKD saw all martial styles as valid and used whatever worked best in any given situation. Lee was a Taoist, and this shows in how he looked to strip away anything that was unnecessary or not as efficient as possible; this resulted in him using a variety of techniques, striking from long range with kicks or moving in close to use grapples, throws or punches. All of this means that JKD doesn’t really have a specific “look” to it – laypersons can often recognise the slow, graceful flow of Tai Chi, or the hard, swift strikes of Karate for example. But with JKD, if anything is up for grabs, then you’re never sure what you’re going to see.
Tai Chi evolved over the years from a purely martial style to one that broke down the mechanics of the body.
All of this means that from student to student, we see differences as much as we see similarities. Due to differing body sizes, body shapes and possible physical impairments, each person who learns JKD is essentially learning their own unique style. Which is what Bruce Lee probably would have wanted.
Which raises an interesting point about Tai Chi. Both arts essentially came from the same source, which is Taoism, which placed great emphasis on refining what you do and not leaving anything superfluous in your routine. Tai Chi evolved over the years from a purely martial style to one that broke down the mechanics of the body, and helped the practitioner to truly understand how they moved, which should in turn help them become better at movement and, therefore, better at fighting. And yet, like I just mentioned, there is always a very definitive look to Tai Chi when it is performed. You can’t miss the expansive movement of the arms and legs when the student is moving forward – a good example would be the single whip move.
There are countless Tai Chi students across the earth, and yet its like being able to speak the same language even if you’ve trained on the other side of the world. I was recently on holiday in Vietnam, and was offered a Tai Chi lesson one day by a tour guide – he didn’t know that back in England I also studied the art, so I took him up on the offer to see how he was taught and what it was like in comparison to what I know. The next day, we begin and he goes straight into showing us the Yang 24 step form; one of, if not the, most recognised Tai Chi form on the face of the planet. And there I am, having travelled countless miles to be doing what I practice every day back at home.
Now, I’m sure Bruce Lee might well have an explanation for this, but there seems to be a paradox here. Tai Chi as a style is Taoist, which in turn says to refine things, to reduce everything until there is only the essential left. JKD says to embrace everything at first before whittling away until you’re left with what works for you. So how do we have two completely separate styles arising from the same core philosophy? Shouldn’t there be more of a cross over, even if it is unintentional?
Obviously, most of us think of Lee performing long, driving kicks and rapid fire punches when someone mentions JKD, so it’s a natural assumption to just think that this is what the style does. But Bruce Lee had years of Wing Chun training before he began creating his own approach to fighting. Years of learning to counter instead of blocking, years of practising low kicks to destabilise an opponent and years of being told to dominate the centre line between you and an adversary. As such, what we’re seeing is a very strong Wing Chun grounding, on top of which additional ideas and concepts are allowed to be introduced to.
It’s not uncommon for martial artists to begin their training at a young age, and if so then we all have a style that we studied before being truly aware of how others fight. Kids being taken to Karate or Tae Kwan Do classes before discovering other, more esoteric and harder to find arts, or students learning wrestling or boxing while at school, who in turn want to improve their stand up game and try their hand at Muay Thai. Before anything else, we learn the basics of one art, and that – for better or worse – becomes the bedrock by which we judge all others. You can’t run before you can walk.
It’s sometimes easy to take for granted that we’re practising a refinement of years’ worth of study and dedication,.
So is Jeet Kune Do truly a revolutionary art that makes Tai Chi look stilted and outdated? It could be easy to think so, but if you were to take away the Wing Chun elements that Bruce Lee couldn’t look past, then you’ve got a disparate collection of moves without anything to hold them together. Imagine performing a Tai Chi form without any real control of your centre: the limbs would be disconnected and out of sync, and any real energy or strength that you had would quickly dissipate.
Tai Chi has had so long to establish it’s philosophy and it’s myriad forms that it’s sometimes easy to take for granted that we’re practising a refinement of years’ worth of study and dedication, from countless students across the world. And now, with the internet at almost everyone’s fingertips, we can share our findings with anyone with an interest in the subject. We might be stripping away the extraneous, we might all be different people with different needs and approaches, but as we continue to whittle away those unnecessary elements, we’re slowly coming to a perfect distillation of how to move, and how to fight. It doesn’t matter where you join the river, just as long as you go with the flow.
That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.