Kung Fu, the Tao and Embodied Philosophy

July 9, 2019 Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat

Full moon rising over the bamboos at the Kung Fu Retreat.

The three principal philosophies that have shaped Chinese Kung Fu are Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Taoism is the accumulated wisdom of 4,000 years of Chinese civilisation.  Unlike many philosophies, it is not at all idealistic. Quite the reverse it is the study of reality.  Rather than dictating how things should be, it observes and understands how they are. Taoism advocates first observing the flow of life and then harmonising with it so as to take advantage for the current, not swim against it.

Kung fu is the physical embodiment of the Tao. 

The opening of the classic Taoist text the Tao Te Ching can be translated as:

‘The more you use it, the more it produces;

The more you talk of it the less you understand.’


Kung fu is not something which should be thought about.  It is something which should be done intuitively, without thinking.

When chi rises to the head, the head becomes full of thoughts.  Head thoughts are disjointed thoughts and result in disjointed movement.  When chi sinks to the Tan Tien, gut thinking takes over. Gut thinking is calm and wise.  Gut thinking results in unified movement with the whole body moving from the core. Gut thinking leaves the head clear of thoughts.  This is the state we call Zen.

The more we think about our movements the worse they become.  This is why under the stress of competition or of having an audience, many people fail even though they have succeeded over and again in practise.  It is when we cease thinking about them that everything comes together and we excel. Good Kung Fu flows out from the Tan Tien (the core). When chi is centred at the Tan Tien, thought is centred at the Tan Tien and the head is clear this outflow is made easy.

Taoism seeks a smooth flow in life.  No drama, no tossing and turning, no sharp changes of direction.  Just a smooth, easy, comfortable progression. Kung fu is the embodiment of this philosophy.  It has us moving smoothly and fluidly but powerfully and purposefully all the time centred at the core.  

Flow is power.  Good fighters flow.  Their movement is a work of art. 

There is a saying in Kung Fu:

The difference between the student and the Master is that the student makes the easy look difficult but the Master makes the difficult look easy.


Good kung fu flows easily.


Taoist thinking can be symbolised by bamboo which is why bamboo is so prominent in Chinese artwork.  Especially Chinese watercolours. Bamboo is hugely strong but light and supple. When struck it does not shatter, it bends and springs back.  While huge trees will snap in a gale, bamboo moves together with the wind and regains it form when the wind has passed. A good Kung Fu Master resembles a bamboo;  Flexible, springy, adaptable, resilient. The Master joins with an adversary’s force instead of resisting it, absorbs it then springs back, bends rather than being broken and all the time stays rooted to the Earth, not toppling or falling.

According to the Tao Te Ching:


Men are born soft and supple;

Dead they are stiff and hard.

Plants are born tender and pliant;

Dead they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death;

Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken;

The soft and supple will prevail.


Good advice, not only as to how to do great Kung Fu and to keep healthy into old age, but also on how to succeed in life.


Those 4,000 years of accumulated Taoist wisdom have sown that reading philosophy is often a waste of time since reading is the realm of the head brain, the conscious mind, and this is not where good philosophy is aimed.  Many people read philosophy whilst totally failing to understand it. The target is the subconscious, the gut thinking. This is where real thought power lies but it is not accessible by words. It is, however, accessible through the breath and through the body.  When we breathe from right down in the abdomen we stimulate gut thinking. When we breathe calmly we stimulate a deep calm. When we move smoothly, fluidly, flexibly, softly, continuously, purposefully we absorb these qualities into our minds and into our characters at the deepest level.  Way deeper than our conscious thoughts are capable of penetrating. This is what I call ‘embodied philosophy’. It can not be expressed in words. It has to be practised.

The words ‘Kung Fu’ mean ‘achievement resulting from diligent practise over a long time’.  Generations of Chinese Masters have passed on their wisdom and philosophy through this physical medium with huge success.  It is impossible to adequately describe Kung Fu in words because words are the realm of conscious thinking and the conscious is just a tiny part of the mind.  It is only when we go beyond words and conscious thought to study kung fu with our whole being that we have any chance of understanding. 

My teacher, Master Tan Soh Tin often told me that if I was ever to really understand Chinese Kung Fu I first needed to learn to think like a Chinese.  Having spent more than 20 years trying to do this I believe that the real secret is learning to ‘not think’ like a Chinese. Kung Fu philosophy is embodied philosophy.  It needs to be done, not studied. Just like the Tao:


‘The more you use it, the more it produces;

The more you talk of it the less you understand.’