Implicit Learning in Kung Fu:

They knew about this long ago.

Here I am presenting part of an interview with the Fifth Generation Master Gin Foon Mark about studying Kung Fu in Buddhist temples in China. I hope readers, especially those, who are familiar with the concept of Implicit Learning, will find it interesting.

An interviewer is my Martial Arts teacher Igor Messing, who is now one of the closest disciplines of the Master.


Alex Zhenya visit 2013_0166-1

Gin Foon Mark is a really legend in Martial Arts world. He was born in the beginning of 20 century, in the South China. Some of the close members of his family were Martial Arts Masters. He started practice Kung Fu under supervision of his uncle as soon as he made his first steps. Later, he continued education in Buddhists monastery instead of going to regular school. The naturally intelligent and sensitive, Gin Foon Mark absorbed all aspects of traditional ancient knowledge and has risen to the peak of recognition in Martial Arts community. Maybe the most important about him is that he always tried to bring his knowledge and experience to the ordinary people. In 60-th, he was the first who open the Kung Fu classes for white community in New York City. He worked, as a volunteer, in hospitals , helping patients to relieve their pain by using Qigong breathing gymnastic. He gave calligraphy classes for young people in a community centre, his dancing group travelled around USA, performing the Lion Dancing, his school represented Kung Fu community of NY in many high rank Martial Arts festivals.

At the age of 87, he is still working every day at of “Kwong Sai Jook Lum Southern Praying Mantis” club in St. Paul, Minnesota, helping his students to study Kung Fu. He considers Kung Fu practice as a powerful tool for advances in self-development and studying the Nature.

Igor Messing:

“ After long career in Martial Arts, for my last 10 years, I have got a privilege to practice an unique close combat Kung Fu style under direct supervision of Fifth Generation Master Gin Foon Mark. The beauty of his Kung Fu took my heart by its efficiency, which integrated logic of the technique with the spontaneous, based on the intuition, actions.

My students in St. Petersburg, Russia were very impressed by his skill as well. They decided to study and to promote Kwong Sai Jook Lum. This is how the first club of this style was born in Russia. In our Kung Fu Club “Jook Lum” we are trying to open an internal meaning of this ancient martial art, and explore it with the help of contemporary scientific knowledge”.

For contact:


IM (Igor Messing): What was Kung Fu training like in the monasteries?

GFM (Gin Foon Mark): You had to have patience. In the beginning martial arts were never mentioned. First we trained all the senses. Long periods of meditation preceded and followed each training session. We were blindfolded for all the sensory exercises. We had to distinguish herbs, incense, animals and other material by smell.

IM: I suppose the martial art application was to detect an enemy by smell. Were there any other applications?

GFM: Monks could tell some of the ingredients in a herbal mixture by smelling it. There were no devices for telling time in many chambers in the temple. Different smelling incense sticks were lit each hour to tell the time.

IM: What were some of the hearing exercises?

GFM: We were blindfolded and sat in the center of a circle of monks. When a monk made a noise, we had to tell which direction it came from. A similar exercise was to tell the direction of an object from the noise it made when it dropped. We had to try and hear a grain of rice thrown in the air. A stick or sword was struck and we had to tell whether it was hit at the top, middle or bottom.

IM: The obvious martial art application of these last exercises is to detect a surprise or rear attack by hearing. Could you mention some other applications?

GFM: You can tell which part of the foe’s sword you contact by the sound. The hearing exercises were helpful for avoiding bullets and shells while fighting in the Sino-Japanese War. Enemies could be detected in the dark.

IM: Although smelling and hearing training are useful, I don’t think they account for your outstanding hand techniques. Did you practice any sort of yielding or sensitivity exercises?

GFM: Yes. We began by sitting in a chair opposite our partner. We were blindfolded. A simple beginning exercise was to hold your hand, palm up, in front of your body. Your partner would gently push down on your palm. You would try to move your hand in the direction of the force and turn it over, so that your palm was face down. You would try to remain in contact with your opponent’s hand, as if they were glued together. Your opponent would now push up and you would try to move your hand upward and rotate it so that your palm faced up.

IM: I suppose that this exercise was designed to teach you to relax, offer no resistance and move in the direction of the opponent’s as if your hands were pasted together?

GFM: Correct. After becoming proficient in the one-hand exercise both hands were used. Your partner could push either hand or both simultaneously. When both hands were pushed, each hand could be pushed in a different direction. After a while the hands could be pushed in any direction, not just vertically. Similar exercises were done for the legs. Later, other parts of the body were pushed.

IM: Were these exercises only practised sitting down?

GFM: No. They were practised sitting down initially so that you could relax more and not become tense because of a poor stance. After you became proficient in the sitting exercises they were practiced standing still. Later, they were practised moving and other exercises were added. For example, we would bump into each other and practice neutralizing and using the oponent’s force against him. Our feet were tied together and we had to move in unison in various ways using only feeling, since we were still blindfolded.

IM: Were practical applications of these sensitivity exercises discussed in this stage of your training?

GFM: Applications were not discussed until you became proficient in the sensory exercises. In general nothing was explained. Explanations are the American way or modern way in China. You were shown an exercise and told to practice it thousands of times. You would not be shown another technique until you mastered the previous one. You might finally understand a technique through your practice. Verbal explanations were not given.

IM: Did you practice self-defence after mastering the sensory exercises?

GFM: Even after passing through the sensitivity part of your training, you didn’t learn to punch, kick or block. You had to practice exercises designed to loosen and relax every part of your body. You had to practice footwork and stances for a long time. Many hours were devoted to qigong and meditation exercises. You had to develop a great deal of power in single techniques before you were allowed to practice combination techniques.

IM: Did you study weapons?

GFM: Yes, we studied all the classical weapons, but only after mastering all the unarmed techniques. Nowadays, students learn weapons right away. How can someone with no power, a poor stance and footwork, use a weapon? Even many instructors look like they’re performing a juggling act during a weapon’s demonstration. They swing their weapons in large arcs; they don’t have short power.

ME: Your system of Praying Mantis is famous for short power. How did you develop short power with weapons?

GFM: The only secret is patience and constant practice. I had to be very skilled and strong in unarmed techniques before I was allowed to practice weapons. My instructors made me practice single techniques, as cutting potatoes, melons, etc., for six years before learning any forms.

IM: I can see why your techniques are so powerful. Nowadays many students come to train once a week. In six years, or in many situations much sooner, they think they are Masters and open their own clubs. People don’t seem to use common sense when thinking about martial arts. No one would think that a PH.D in Physics, for example, could be obtained by attending a university once a week of an hour or two for six years.

GFM: I think that most of the old Masters were more skilful than most modern Masters. It is not because secret techniques were lost. Modern times are not conducive to learning Kung Fu. Many people have a lot of responsibilities such as their jobs, families etc., and there are many different forms of amusement to distract people. When I was a boy, there were no radios, televisions, movies or books in our village. People did not have a lot of responsibilities or a demanding job. Consequently, I could practice nearly the whole day. Besides, training was one of the few forms of amusement.

IM: Did you only study self-defense in the monasteries?

GFM: No. The monks realized that it could be dangerous to only practice the yang part of Kung Fu (self-defense), without practising the remaining yin part (meditation, Chinese medicine, art, etc.). They wanted to produce a well-rounded human being, not a killing machine. Since the monasteries were isolated, it was important to know medicine to treat sick people as well injuries occurring during Kung Fu practice.

IM: I can attest to the fact that constant yang type training often leads to a hard mind ….

GFM: The students in monasteries were better than most students in modern, commercial Kung Fu schools. Monastic students had to have good character and aptitude to be admitted to the monastery. They couldn’t pay to learn techniques and only learned new techniques when they had mastered the previous techniques to the satisfaction of the Master. They had to have a lot of patience and perseverance and were forced to train hard. Students were instilled with the love of learning. They realized that Kung Fu was a lifetime pursuit, since they saw that the Masters were still studying. They were not given a false sense of pride in their accomplishments, since there were no rankings, in the modern sense.

Comment: Peter Joffe

In my opinion, in contemporary Sport we are close to the point, where traditional methods of training won’t bring further improvement and won’t give decisive advantage over an opponent. So, where the potential resources for improvement could be found? I think, the most obvious way is the better understanding how our body works and what influence a result in the different circumstances. Contemporary science made a huge progress in this direction, and I have no doubt that further advances will follow.

Another way, probably, is not so obvious though, in my opinion, it has a great potential. I mean Sports Psychology, especially its part connected with learning processes, creativity and coping with stress. Indeed, today, High Level Sport means big money and, as a consequence of that, big pressure and enormous competitiveness. To cope with that, new generation of athletes must acquire skills and qualities which became natural for them and will not “crack” under pressure of stress, high intensity and opponent’s counteraction. Another aspect of developing an athlete, which is worth to consider, is the danger of ” mind narrowness”, when a young person is growing up focused only on result, fame and success.

From this point of view, ancient ideas and methods of Kung Fu teaching, presented in this interview, invite a reflection about effectiveness of traditional, “western” methods of sport training and maybe suggest new (for West) approaches. I think these ideas have something in common with the concept of Implicit Learning, which was discussed in my article. Of course, Kung Fu learning methods cannot be mechanistically implemented in sports training because the very idea of competition contradicts with the philosophy of Kung Fu. Another reason is that we are living in the different society in comparison to that when ancient monks lived. However, I have no doubt that ideas, philosophy and methods of Kung Fu teaching deserve a great attention from the sport psychologists society.

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