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The Kung Fu Exercise Book
Health Secrets of Ancient China
(Simon and Schuster, 1974, 128 pages)
The Wisdom of Kung Fu
William Morrow & Co., 1974, 122 pages)
by Michael Minick
Review by Christopher Dow
I’m tackling these two books in one review for reasons that will become obvious later. Both books were published in 1974, though by different publishers. It seems that The Kung Fu Exercise Book came first since there is no mention in it of The Wisdom of Kung Fu, while the latter book has “Also by Michael Minick: The Kung Fu Exercise Book” on the page facing the title page. Hence, I’ll review them in the putative order of their publication, then I’ll make a few comments on the two books taken as a whole.
The Kung Fu Exercise Book is broken into two sections. The first, which occupies about one-third of the book, is devoted to describing kung fu-related health systems and exercises rather than to any specific kung fu style. It does, however, contain the basic history of kung fu, and it gives thumbnail descriptions of several styles, both hard and soft. For the most part, however, the text discuses health exercises developed by the Chinese people, which today we would term chi kung, chi gong, or qigong, though he never uses those terms since they were not well known in America at the time he was writing. He also includes a more than adequate outline of the diagnostics and techniques of traditional Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture, moxibustion, and pulse-reading. Later chapters of this section compare Chinese exercises and traditional Chinese medicine to their Western counterparts, and it’s easy to guess which fares better.
The history of kung fu he relates is the basic one found in many scores of kung fu and chi kung manuals, though Minick does them justice through his relatively solid, if elementary, understanding of kung fu history and his clear writing style. He does, however, present a highly idealized version of the virtues of the “kung fu man” (which includes the kung fu woman). While it is probably true that many kung fu masters were honorable, forthright, ethical, and learned as well as highly skilled, the actual history of China is replete with warlords, criminal gangs, and psycho cults, all of whom produced their own educated and highly skilled fighters. While Minick does acknowledge the presence of such kung fu practitioners, he makes the somewhat spurious claim that they could not be masters of their arts because they also were not masters of medicine, literature, and other sophistications. Perhaps it is true that criminals and a warlord’s top fighters would be unlikely to develop into sages, the same could be said of most kung fu practitioners, then or now. The truth is that most of us remain simple journeymen.
The exercise system that the author most relies on is derived from what he calls the “Ancient Art Silk-Weaving Exercises,” which is more commonly known as “The Eight Pieces of Brocade,” to which he adds a number of warm-up exercises, mostly consisting of loosening and stretching. He says that the origin of the system is lost in antiquity, and while that is technically true, modern practitioners in the West have had nearly forty years of additional information to work with. Today, the creation of the Eight Pieces of Brocade is ascribed to two of the Eight Immortals: Zhongli Quan and Lu Dongbin, which might not say much, but it’s something.
Minick states that this exercise set promotes internal health by strengthening the inner body—the organs, energy flow, and so forth—but ironically, the exercises he discusses are wei kung rather than nei kung. For those who don’t know, chi kung can be broken into two broad categories that are similar to the divisions in kung fu styles: external/hard and internal/soft. The former sort, which were developed many centuries earlier than the latter sort, are termed wei kung. These are chi kung exercises primarily associated with the Shaolin branch of kung fu and were designed primarily to strengthen the musculature, joints, and sinews. This does not mean that wei kung don’t have a salutary effect on the inner body, but their prime purpose is to strengthen the outer body. Venerable and well-known examples of wei kung are the Eight Brocades and the Sinew Changing Classic.
The sort, termed nei kung, on the other hand, were developed later, roughly in conjunction with the development of the soft/internal martial styles of Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua, and Hsingi, and are thus associated with the Wudang branch of kung fu. The movements of nei kung forms are specifically designed to promoted inner health and well-being and to energize the chi system and related meridians. Some of these are even performed with little or no outer movement, and even sitting meditation can be considered a nei kung.
But this distinction does not detract from the efficacy of the exercises that occupy the last two-thirds of Minick’s book. Having practiced both the Eight Brocades and a nei kung form, I can attest that, while each acts differently on the body, both are excellent for their purposes—though, in my opinion, one should practice both for a more well-rounded approach.
Minick begins the instruction section—the last section of the book—with a few warm-up exercises designed to loosen the joints and relax the body. Then he moves into the Ancient Art Silk-Weaving Exercises (Eight Brocades). I’ve seen a number of variations on this set, and Minick’s is on what I would call the lighter, less strenuous side. Following that, he presents eight additional, more advanced movements, some of which are a little more strenuous but not prohibitively so. The verbal descriptions are adequate, and the accompanying photos are clear. I’m generally not a fan of form instruction sections in martial arts manuals, but chi kung forms are usually fairly simple, and you could easily learn the Ancient Silk-Weaving Exercises from this book.
Minick’s second book, The Wisdom of Kung Fu, also has two sections. The first few chapters of section one relate the history of kung fu and the principles, customs, and training underlying the practice. These are followed by a chapter detailing several prominent styles, a chapter on kung fu health practices and traditional Chinese medicine, and one on kung fu weaponry.
I’m not going to go into specifics on this section because it is all very similar to the same material in The Kung Fu Exercise Book, though with less emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine and more on kung fu as a fighting art. In fact, the sections detailing several different hard and soft styles is lifted practically verbatim from The Kung Fu Exercise Book. Only the section on kung fu weapons is entirely new, and it is rather short and superficial. As with The Kung Fu Exercise Book, this first section occupies only about one-third of the book.
Section two, titled “The Wisdom of the Masters,” is a collection of pithy quotes by Chinese philosophers and thinkers such as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and a great many others. It is broken into seven categories: Mysticism, Superior Man, Moral Teachings, Government, Combat, Human Nature, and Practical Advice.
All these quotes are excellent and deeply meaningful, but as with food, a meal should not overwhelm the palate with an impossible-to-distinguish flood of flavors. You can read a page or two of this stuff, but after that, it all begins to turn to mush in the brain. Yet Minick gives us sixty pages of it—far, far too much to properly digest in even a month of sittings.
And I have to say that, in the end, this massive number of quotes seems like just an easy way to extend what would have been a lengthy essay into a book-length manuscript. In addition, a great deal of the information contained in both books—which are short enough as it is at under 130 pages each—is repetitive. It seems to me that the author did his best to make two books where there ought to have been one titled, Kung Fu: It’s History, Techniques, and Wisdom—in which he could have gone easier on the Wisdom section.
You could do worse than these books for an introduction to chi kung, kung fu, and the principles and philosophies behind them, but both, though well written, are very basic. They might have been adequate in 1974, but they have been eclipsed in subsequent decades by more completely detailed and concise works. Beginners might find something of value in one or the other, and anyone interested in learning the Eight Brocades but who does not have a teacher might consider The Kung Fu Exercise Book. More experience practitioners, however, won’t find much here.