This article was generously contributed by Mason Zhong of the Chinese Martial Arts Reformation Society.

Continuing with our trend of analysis into the Chinese Martial Arts world, we decided to share our insight into just why is it that you don't see Chinese Martial Arts (A.K.A. Kung Fu) in modern fighting.

This is a loose continuation of our earlier article - Sanda: When Kung Fu created a solution to its problems - then threw it away, and Is Kung Fu On The Cusp of a Modern Fighting Resurgence?

But wait a minute - is what you're about to read a list of excuses on why Chinese Kung Fu "doesn't work" or be presented with the overused simplified explanation of "it's not the system but the practitioner" (even if it is partly true)?

No, we're going to try to share exactly why, with legitimate reasons, you simply don't see Chinese Kung Fu in modern fighting arenas or combat sports.

"Practical is not pretty, pretty is not practical." (“杀人的勾当,岂是好看的?”) - Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang (戚继光), 1561

There are many Chinese Martial Arts techniques that cannot be found in Sanda Sanshou Kung Fu, or modern combat sports for that matter.

These techniques fit into one or more of the following categories:

1. They're Not Practical (Fraudulent)

Chinese Martial Arts (and other traditional martial arts) have a long history of fraud that, as we all know, continues today.

We've already spent a large amount of time and attention retracing the history of Chinese Martial Arts and its knack for fraudulence and disappointment in an old article we wrote: Where Are The Chinese Fighters?.

So let's cut to the chase quickly: the reason why so many Kung Fu styles or techniques seem to be so ineffective or "fake" is because most "masters" either:

  1. Don't know what they learned,
  2. Never learned the full system,
  3. Only learned from a subordinate student / assistant teacher,
  4. Completely faked their lineage / knowledge,
  5. or otherwise don't know what they're teaching,
  6. or how they're applied.

Of course, fake martial arts "masters" exist in all corners of the world and are not exclusive to Chinese Martial Arts.

Here's a classic example:

Similar to the watering down of martial arts in the western world (Karate and Taekwondo McDojos and McDojangs are common), a significant portion of martial arts teachers simply lack the real skill and knowledge to teach real effective martial arts, or worse, trick students into coughing up their hard-earned money in exchange for fake martial arts.

However, due to the absence of built-in sparring or pressure testing of most traditional Chinese Kung Fu styles, there exists a large, subjective gap between who is deemed a beginner and who is considered an expert, or even "master".

Without a widely accepted model of quality control that is built into the martial art system itself like rolling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or sparring in Boxing / Muay Thai, anyone can "fake" their Kung Fu skills and pretend to be a "master", without actually being battle tested or needing to spar.

2. Lost In Translation / Misunderstood Techniques

There are also more innocent reasons for ineffective techniques, such as the inaccurate communication/transmission/preservation of techniques that have occurred over generations of being taught from one person to another (i.e. the broken telephone effect).

Again, this type of "lost in translation" is largely made possible by the decline of pressure testing (sparring), and also perhaps the mistranslation of terms from one dialect or language to another such as when taught to a non-native speaker or foreigner.

In addition to language or cultural barriers - actual techniques can be misunderstood as well. Grappling techniques can easily be misinterpreted as striking techniques, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, some techniques are purely there for strength and conditioning (breathing, stances), while others are there just to illustrate a scientific concept (low sinking stances, push hands drills, sticky hands drills, etc.).


This reap could easily be mistaken for some kind of palm strike.


3. Better Alternatives Have Emerged

Chinese Martial Arts / Kung Fu dates back thousands of years, and it has largely remain unchanged, while other martial arts styles have evolved and become more efficient and straight to the point in their usage.

Therefore, there may be a plethora of techniques that aren't necessarily useless but due to changes in technology, environment, and lifestyles, have lost relevance due to the emergence of far better alternatives.

In fact, even martial arts like Boxing and Muay Thai used to look quite sloppy by today's standards - if they can evolve to become better (and in fact, they're still continuing to evolve today), why can’t Chinese Martial Arts?


Boxing and Muay Thai have both evolved significantly over the past century.

4. Kung Fu Has A History Of Being Associated With Performing Arts

Much of Kung Fu has been modified (or are purely there) for performance purposes, in both ancient (for performance) and modern times (due to martial arts being mostly banned for a time in China by the Communist Party).

Chinese Martial Arts has a long history of being closely associated with performing arts, as it provided martial artists with an extra source of revenue and advertising.

Martial artists would often do performances on the street, perform lion dancing (as a traditional, cultural, or religious way to bring good luck and fortune), and qi gong demonstrations as a form of busking, as well as advertisement for their herbal medicines or martial arts lessons.

When we consider the low literacy rates in China for much of its history, it becomes unsurprising that flashy performances and carnival tricks would indeed be effective tools for these purposes.

When the Communist Party of China took over, martial arts were mostly banned from being practiced by civilians, and Kung Fu was turned into Wushu (the performance art).

The military on the other hand, was developing Sanda Kung Fu - the modernized combat sports form of Kung Fu.

5. Real Kung Fu Was Hidden From View, Because They Were Used For Rebellion

The Red Boat Troupe (红船) was an anti-government rebel group during the end of the Qing Dynasty that used Cantonese Opera (粤剧) to conceal their martial arts skills.

Kung Fu styles and techniques were also hidden from view at least at one point in time, because they were used by anti-government rebels to conceal their martial arts skills (a la Capoeira in Brazil).

This association with performing arts continues (and is arguably even greater) today in the form of Kung Fu movies and Wushu taolu (forms).

Expecting Chinese Martial Arts fighting to look like Kung Fu movies or Wushu forms is like expecting actual war to look like Rambo or Call of Duty.

6. Not Designed For Combat Sports

Many Chinese Martial Arts were simply invented or practiced during a time that was not relevant in today's combat sports atmosphere - because spectator sport fighting with protective equipment did not exist back then.

Martial arts were used back then mostly as a means of self defense from bandits, thieves, or in the military (more on this later).

Therefore, many old Kung Fu techniques include disarming an armed opponent, stopping an opponent from seizing your weapon, assassinating or apprehending an unsuspecting target, and low-intensity scuffles (pushing and shoving as opposed to an actual fight).

Another example is using vertical fist punches and open hand strikes to reduce the risk of hand injury during a time when such injuries could have devastating consequences.

Old-school bareknuckle boxing had many technical similarities with Wing Chun (咏春), due to an emphasis on reducing the risk of hand injury.


7. Kung Fu Styles Emerged From Weapons Fighting, Not Empty Hand Fighting

Eight Slashing Butterfly Knives

What many non-practitioners of Chinese Kung Fu seem to not know at all (because many people only judge Chinese Kung Fu on the outside, without actually having studied any Chinese Martial Arts) is that many Chinese Martial Arts styles or systems originated from warfare / military use.

What do we wield during war in ancient times? Well weapons, of course!

A Chinese Martial Arts practitioner explains why Kung Fu stances are the way they are:

Weapons fighting was a part of every day life in ancient times - Wing Chun with Baat Jaam Do (Eight Slashing Knives / Butterfly Knives), Xing Yi with the Qiang (Spear) - as wars, battles, or assassinations that broke out almost always used weaponry.

Qin Na (Chinese Grappling), Eagle Claw Kung Fu or Japanese Aikido / Jiu Jitsu are great examples of this in action. Most of these systems focused on wrist grabs / locks and small joint manipulations to disarm your opponent's weapon, as if you allowed them to unsheathe their sword or knife, you would surely be dead.

8. Kung Fu Techniques Are Illegal

We're deliberately leaving this one to last, as too often it’s used as an excuse for why Chinese Martial Arts often loses against other styles.

MMA allows many Chinese Martial Arts techniques that are banned in Sanda, such as elbows, joint locks, and chokes, yet even then the excuses continue, with eye pokes and groin strikes being most commonly brought up.

The "deadliness" of Kung Fu techniques is an excuse often used by the so-called Chinese Martial Arts "masters" when they are confronted with the reality of fighting.

The reality however, is that "deadly" techniques can't be used in sparring, which means that one can't acquire the skill to apply them effectively under live, resisting pressure. Over-reliance on these techniques, therefore, spells disaster in combat.

This is the same reason why Judo has evolved past Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, because it eliminated almost all of the "too deadly but untrainable" techniques and only left the usable techniques that can be trained with full fighting resistance.

- Dynasty Team


October 06, 2020 — Dynasty Team


DJ Emir said:

One of the biggest reasons is people that learn traditional martial arts are really there to better themselves not go out of their way to boost their egos beating people up. At Shaolin, we have no problem with being able to easily dispatch an assailant that wants to do us harm. It has happened to students at different times and they have managed to come out unscathed most times. But during the training even if you had originally intended for it to be more for all those bar fights you got into etc… you eventually find the calming effect of training and the calmness that comes from understanding that if talk turned to a real fight you’d probably come out of it on top.

You quickly realize how many things can easily go wrong in a situation and realize that no matter what happens win or lose you could end up in a legal battle even if you win and were defending yourself. So you don’t go out seeking it, but if a punch is thrown you quickly find the straight in the curve and teach them how one hand lies the other tells the truth. Personally, I have sparred with people of different styles and backgrounds and find most to be much easier to spar against than those of the Shaolin styles as Shaolin has many more techniques and styles than most other schools the pool of material to draw from is endless so you see many different techniques attempted in sparring and much more variety, diversity and creativity in sparring than you do when you watch other people spar in general. As they said in Wu-tang “Hitting you from every angle” The other reason you don’t see it is many techniques have been taken away including techniques that allow you to defend from the ground position. Kicking upward has been taken out of several competitions But even with stuff being illegal another reason it is hazardous to your health to enter these things even if you win you might come out with a debilitating injury as someone might ignore the no knee trap rule etc… No matter how good you are you will at some point have an injury that might last you years. Most people that are in Kung Fu are not in it to destroy others or to compete but rather to strengthen their body and also be able to defend themselves as part of having a healthy body is keeping it that way. People always say things like Oh Kung fu is useless if you can’t strike the groin, it’s more like you are a useless martial artist if you cannot defend your groin. LOL quick flicks to the eye are also not allowed and let’s be honest again if you can’t defend against that then you will be useless in the streets, But with iron palm training and iron bone training, those crane flicks become steel rods striking your face it doesn’t take as much as you think once they are at that level, one time an accidental flick to the throat during sparring nearly closed a student’s throat as it was seizing up and spasming luckily he was able to remain calm despite not being able to breathe and he was able to relax allowing the throat to calm down and start allowing air in his lungs again. But that shows the true power of a quick crane-style flick. But when we spar we have both full contact gloved sparring a few times a year and regular sparring with light contact to the body and pulled (no contact to the face but we are allowed to strike to the face just pull it within an inch or two (This teaches control and allows you to practice even the deadlier techniques without too much risk) After all what is power without control. You should be able to place that power where it will have the most impact.

Raphael said:

Some people who practice combat sports really despise those who practice Taolu or forms only, however, in my view, the contempt for the Taolu comes from ignorance about the Chinese culture and history.

Indeed, the record of Taolu is probably as early as Sanda (Practical combat). The oldest Chinese anthology, the Classic of Poetry, describles the warriors performing fighting dance, waving their weapons before the war, which is considered the first delineation of the martial arts performance, or the so-called Taolu today.

Besides, the Feast at Swan Goose Gate, also describes the scene in which Xiang Zhuag pretended to perform a sword dancing, in order to assassinate Liu Bang, the founding emperer of Han dynasty later. This historic story can also be deemed as the record of Taolu.

Just as this article mentions, martial arts do evolve in their forms, obviously including the training method. Taolu, that used to be one main approach of martial arts training, is gradually replaced by the better alternative modern method, in a more scientific and comprehensive way. This is unavoidable, but it does not mean that Taolu is absolutely meaningless in this regard.

For me, Taolu is a kind of performance related to martial arts, perhaps, some people think that practicing Taolu is useless in terms of combat, however, I think we can position Taolu in the content of culture, rather than just insisting its function of fighting as we now have better training method.

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.