One of my favorite metaphors regarding learning and mastering kung fu is that of learning and becoming fluent in a new language.
Before elaborating on this, I want to be clear that if you can become fluent in a language – which most adults and older children are – then you can become “fluent” in kung fu. It simply requires consistent, almost daily practice with others for years. Kung Fu fluency is the ability to spar another practitioner in such a way that your body can naturally and successfully move and respond to various attacks/counter-attacks and your mind has the nimbleness to decide what your body should do in the split second it has to react. This does not come easily, but it’s definitely proven worthwhile to those who have achieved that level of ability.
When learning a new language, you begin by learning the letters, common words and sentences of that language. While learning the basics, you are definitely not able to manage a conversation with someone who is fluent. They would speak quickly and easily and you would have no idea what they were saying. In fact, they would likely be confused with what you were trying to say to them with what little you know. An equivalent in kung fu would be a beginner student sparring an advanced practitioner – there would simply be no contest.
In kung fu, the beginning of training includes learning basic kicks, punches, stances, single step movements, escape movements and basic block and counter techniques. For most, these beginning movements seem awkward and unbalanced. This is ok and can be expected to last for weeks, months, and even years for some. However, if you keep pressing yourself to grow and improve, these basic movements won’t feel so strange and you’ll be on your path to martial fluency.
As you progress with a new language, learning and memorizing new words and combining them into grammatically correct sentences becomes a major part of your learning. While doing this, you continue to utilize and build on the fundamentals taught in the beginning. You begin putting sentences together both in writing and in speaking. Memorization and repetition is required to develop speed of thought.
As you progress with kung fu, new striking and blocking techniques, and, most especially, new kung fu forms are learned. Learning forms is similar to the learning of sentences. You continue to develop the basic fundamentals that were taught in the very beginning. You begin to feel more and more comfortable with some of the beginning forms and techniques. Additionally, sparring skills are developing and some confidence is gained when sparring those close or below your rank and/or ability level.
As years go by, you become more and more comfortable with your not-so-new language, you have acquired a good deal of mastery with hundreds of words and can easily put sentences together both on paper and verbally. You are working on fine tuning your grammar, but mostly are engrossed with speaking to others who are fluent with the language as this is where you learn you uncover your speaking deficiencies. You are approaching fluency.
With kung fu, you are an intermediate-to-advanced student. The basics have been mastered (sort of) and you are consistently working on improving the smaller details of more advanced technique training. You want your abilities and techniques to be sharper, faster, and more powerful. Your reflexes and reactive movements are becoming clean and your sparring has become crisp. However, you still have difficulties with various movements and can get stuck from time to time while sparring.
After years of studying your language and practicing speaking to native speakers for some time, you are now fluent. You are able to hold conversations with most anyone in that language and speaking it is as common and easy to you as walking or eating. There are still words that you don’t know and a good deal more you can learn about the language, but you are able to speak effortlessly at will.
Among martial arts masters, there is a common theme that once they reached mastery, “form” went away. Sure, these masters would continue to practice forms and other things they were taught, but their sparring became fluid and their movements to various attacks and counterattacks were able to be performed with controlled intention and precision. They truly owned their art – this is fluency in kung fu.