Wu Tang and the Three Levels of a Martial Artist

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

Photos provided by Wu Tan Alaska

Most people will recognize the name “Wu Tang” for the 9-man rap group with a kung fu twist and their origins have been well documented in the past. What people might not know is that there is actually a legitimate line of Chinese martial arts bearing the same, and to my good fortune, my uncle happens to be a Grandmaster in that lineage. He came into town to visit family a couple of months ago, and I thought it worthwhile to hear his insights on the combat sciences. It’s not everyday that you get to sit down and chat with a Grandmaster, after all.

Among the plethora of martial arts systems around the world, the Wu Tang lineage is comparatively young. Its formal creation only dates back to 1971, though its roots can of course be traced further back in time. While it is an amalgamation of many styles added over time, perhaps an ideal place to begin would be with Li Shuwen, a Bajiquan master from the 19th century, who famously went down in martial arts history as the “God of the Spear” and was known for saying that he “did not know what it was like to strike a man twice.” Aksys Games even went on to design a playable character based on his legacy in the game “Fate/Extra”, which came out on the Playstation Portable in 2011.

Bajiquan is a northern China style martial art known for its use of short-ranged elbow and shoulder strikes, and Li was renowned for rejoining the style with another northern fighting technique—piguaquan—which utilized palm techniques and a subtler movement in the hips. Due to the more explosive movements of bajiquan, the two complimented each other well. In fact, there is a Chinese proverb that speaks to the relationship:

“When pigua is added to baji, gods and demons will all be terrified. When baji is added to pigua, heroes will sigh knowing they are no match against it.”

Over time, Li produced three notable disciples: Huo Dian Ge, who served as bodyguard to Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China; Li Chenwu, who was bodyguard to Mao Zedong; and Liu Yun Qiao, who later became instructor of the bodyguards to Chiang Kai Shek. Of the three, Liu Yun Qiao went on to create the Wu Tang system.

Wu Tang is a preservation act of sorts. During the Cultural Revolution, many kung fu masters were persecuted and many of the primary documents in their lineage were destroyed, thus eliminating the base knowledge source of traditions that had been carried over for centuries. Because Liu, known amongst his disciples as “Grandmaster Liu”, came previously to Taiwan with nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek, his knowledge of traditional martial arts remained protected on the island. From there Grandmaster Liu began his institute in 1971, and my uncle, Kurt Wong, became one of his earlier disciples.

Starting his combative journey in Taekwondo, Wong began studying under the Wu Tang lineage in 1972 in search of a more fitting combat system. A classmate recommended the Wu Tang martial arts and Wong has been with it ever since. He first caught onto the discipline quickly and was soon selected for a goodwill tour to the US before serving two years in the Taiwanese military, where according to him, plenty of black belts from other traditions “got their piece.” When Wong made a more permanent move to the United States shortly after, the skill provided a means for him and his family.

“My brother-in-law told me to work at the cafeteria. They paid $3.50 an hour, so I thought, ‘Ok, let me see what I can do’. I went to Tanana Valley Community College [in Fairbanks, Alaska], and I asked them, ‘Can I teach something Chinese?’ They said, ‘What do you know?’ I said, ‘Kung fu’. They said, ‘Oh oh, good, we’ll sign you up.’ I asked, ‘Well, how much do you pay?’ And he said, ‘How about $15 an hour?’ I said, ‘I take it!’”

Wong began his teaching career in 1979, and immediately acquired a full class of 25 students. He eventually settled in Anchorage and established a base stable enough to produce five Laoshis (teachers) who have four sifus underneath them, spanning the globe from the United States to Australia. This accomplishment has made Wong the first Grandmaster of his generation, an accolade he doesn’t profess often because according to him, “that’s not what’s important.”

Other styles part of the Wu Tang system includes, but are not limited to, Tanglang (praying mantis), Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Longfist, depending on the school. There are centers located throughout the world, and Wu Tang martial arts has now become one of the most prominent martial arts styles in the Western hemisphere. Unforeseen to that growth, however, was the emergence of the hip-hop crew from Staten Island that would capture the ears of a generation. When I mentioned the coincidence, Wong recounted the initial discovery in jest. 

“Our name is Wu Tang, their name happen to be Wu Tang, so I changed it to Wu Tan,” said Wong. A quick online search will show that many of the current schools do not include the “g” in their name, though some still use the original title of “Wu Tang” as Grandmaster Liu had first adopted. “I thought we should be separate from them that way people would not have any misunderstanding, but unfortunately we cannot change our name. I have a flag that was officially given by Grandmaster Liu when he was still alive, and it was ‘W-U-T-A-N-G’, and when you search that, the rap group shows up, so I don’t know what to do,” he laughed.

However, my uncle is admittedly not well versed in the 90s hip-hop culture. If he looked a bit deeper into the Clan, he might be surprised. From its lyrical approach to the organizational structure, much of the group’s formation is deep-seeded in martial arts philosophy. Take an excerpt from page 49 of The RZA’s “The Wu-Tang Manual” as an example:

“They say a man must have 120 knowledge, 120 wisdom and 120 understanding. That’s 360 degrees total. Each 120 breaks down to a step of evolution: First you must know it, then you must be able to say it, then you must understand it. That last part, that can take ten years.”

That idea holds similar to Wong’s perspective on the three levels of the martial artist, a theory that manifests knowledge, wisdom and understanding into the physical body. Experts of other martial lines have philosophized similarly, saying that a practitioner must first learn basic principles, which can often be a rough and brutish process, and only then can they learn to refine the finer points of the art, much like the progression a potter develops in learning how to shape a mound of clay into an intricate vase.

“The first level is mostly working on the bones or ‘to become’—the force and intent and the speed. The second level is to cultivate your chi to transform the spirit within, so that will be in the level of understanding ‘softness’, meaning ‘not hard’, no tension, so when you issue an energy or a force, it has not stressed its intent. Level three is that you practice your spirit enough so that all the spirit will be condensed and then transforms into nothing. The ‘nothing’ meaning that when you do something to somebody, it looks like nothing, but there's something in there,” explains Wong. “The first level is mostly the bone. The second level is the tendon. The third level is in the membrane, into the blood cells; it's already into the system.”

The RZA’s estimation on the final stage lasting 10 years isn’t too off either. When I asked how long it would take one to reach the third level, Wong replied “about three decades, depending on the individual,” and the herd slims down after each progression.

“The difficulty is that level one there's the elimination process. Nine-five percent don’t survive level one. The second level is out of that five percent, another five percent. The third level is probably just as hard. There's another level of five percent, so it's a very, very small group,” said Wong.

In most martial arts lineages, it is often said that at some point the practice supersedes the development of the physical, and becomes more about the understanding of the self at its deeper and more meditative stages, or as the RZA also found when he “learned that kung fu was less of a fighting style and more about the cultivation of the spirit.” (page 52 of the Wu-Tang Manual). For Wong, that cultivation goes a step further. For him (and those who subscribe to Chinese philosophy), the practice of martial arts is beyond the physical or even the personal. It is about reaching an elevated state of bliss, a touch to the divine, and it is something that he believes to be missing in the current incarnation of mixed-martial-arts at the competitive level.

“I think the danger [in modern MMA] is that sometimes they might lose their health and benefit because of certain styles. I cannot critique on the other styles because I did not study them, but in my own personal opinion, if their purpose is to develop a good technique with a self-defense, then of course they can do that, but I don’t really think that is the essence of the martial art.

“The essence of martial art is to develop and build within the character, understand yourself and deal with the Heaven, Earth and Man, according to Chinese philosophy. Heaven, Earth and Man is that you will understand completely the energy, not only of yourself, but you can connect through the earth and the heaven, and so you’ll be encompassed by all the elements, rather than just the defeat of others. So it’s a lot more than just the fighting itself.

“This body is not real, see? This body, it's just temporary, but if I can use this body to practice something I do to uplift the spirit, transform to something bigger, wow. That's incredible. That's what I’m thinking right now. See what I mean? That's much better than just going out a cage to prove that you're better than someone. No, we don't need to do that. I think it's more important to understand the philosophy behind that, and so that the paths will be longer for the practitioner.”

An ongoing debate in mixed-martial-arts revolves around the small presence, or complete absence of traditional martial arts in mainstream competitive fighting. The common response you will hear from most traditional practitioners is that competition is not the point of their practice. Naysayers have often deemed the reasoning as a convenient cop-out, a seemingly noble excuse to avoid a potentially public defeat that would deem their system as ineffective. But I’ve also spoken to plenty of practitioners in boxing and jiu jitsu who have said that their participation was what stopped them from fighting on the streets. According to them, there was no longer anything to prove against an untrained aggressor, and I would guess that a similar principle translates over for those that reach the upper echelons of any fighting style.

After a certain point, a greater purpose to one’s practice emerges, and the deeper truths of life begin to reveal themselves. When I asked my uncle the take-away lesson from his four decades of practice, he thought about it for a few moments before finally closing with this:

“Humanity. How to humble yourself. That's what I learned,” Wong said. “I learned that we are not greater than anybody else. We are the same.”

To learn more about Grandmaster Wong and Wu Tang, please visit http://www.wutanalaska.com/


Check out these related stories:

Enter The RZA: A Brief History of the Wu-Tang Clan Mastermind's Martial Arts Practice

Enter The Wu-Tang: The Best Martial Arts References of 36 Chambers

Why Kung Fu Masters Refuse to Teach