Interview with former Shaolin monk, Zhang LiPeng
byBarbara Malvik

BM: What is kung fu?

Zhang Lipeng: Kung fu is not what most people think. All the movements are not kung fu. The form is not kung fu. Kung fu means you're training the one movement for so long, for so many years; that movement you can change in so many different ways to defend yourself and to fight - that's called kung fu.

In China, they don't just call martial arts "kung fu" - anything else they can say is "kung fu." If you've been driving a car for twenty years and never had an accident, that also means kung fu. It means you drive very well. It also means your experience.

If you are like...anything - anything you did for a long time and really experience; like a doctor can also say that very good kung fu. In China, that's what they call this guy. That's what kung fu means.

master zhang jian shu and studentsBM: Is the form kung fu?

Zhang Lipeng: No, the form is not kung fu. The form is just the form.

So many people in the US and in Europe - even in China - think forms are kung fu. But the form is not kung fu. The form is just a form. I can teach you two forms - three forms - twenty forms - you still just know the forms. They say the form. They don't say the kung fu. They say form. So that's why it's not kung fu - it's just exercise. If you're training with one form every day for ten years, one movement you can change twenty different ways for fighting with people. You can use different ways for training. Take each movement out from the form and just train for twenty years - ten years. Don't train just the form. Try and take out. And try to use the movement; and fight with the movement; and change the movement. Each movement you can change twenty different ways or thirty different ways to fight with people.

Then, you can say that is real kung fu. Then you can fight with the form on anybody. No size. Bigger people, tall people you can fight because the form you can change so many different ways to fight with different people.

BM: So, you mean that, in the form the kung fu exists, but you have to get rid of everything else.

Zhang Lipeng: Yes.

BM: So it's someplace in there, but you take away pieces of the form little by little.

Zhang Lipeng: To fight. For training.

BM: And you concentrate each one.

Zhang Lipeng: Each one.

And each movement can also be changed twenty different ways to fight. You change. So flexible, so detailed - that's called kung fu.

Even if you know a different way to fight, but if you don't know how to use it, you still cannot fight. You have to train for a long time to fight.

Like Tai Chi; this movement - hand up, this arm grab, this arm goes this way - you have to train this movement for a long time and the teacher has to stand aside when you do this movement, the teacher has to - boom - with a stick come to your face you have to - boom - grab the stick so you have to do training like this for a long time. Not just with hands - you've got to train with staff, with hands, with punch, with legs; all kind of ways to fight. And you've got to be training like that for a long time. Of course you can fight. That's why I say forms are not kung fu.

iron shirt trainingBM: So kung fu is basically the way you approach your training.

Zhang Lipeng: Kung fu is there. The one movement you train for twenty years and you can use all different ways. That's called kung fu. You have such power and ability to fight. That's called kung fu.

BM: Why do people ask you "Is wushu kung fu?"

Zhang Lipeng: So many Europeans and Americans think wushu is kung fu - kung fu is wushu. Wushu translates to English as "martial art." Fifty or sixty years ago, China's president, Chairman Mao, changed kung fu to become something that looks like gymnastics - like dance, and just beautiful - not form or fight.

Because Chairman Mao didn't want people to train for fighting because he was so worried about people trying to...

BM: ...to take his power away.

Zhang Lipeng: ...to take his power away. That's why they say kung fu is very dangerous. Chairman Mao's real bodyguard was from Shaolin Temple.

BM: Really?

Zhang Lipeng: His name is Shi Xuyu. Shi Xuyu was the younger of six brothers. The Shaolin Temple Master traveled past his village, and the mother said to the monk they couldn't support these children. So could you save one of my children? The Shaolin Master looked at the six children and pointed to one. See, right away that child had a future. So the Shaolin Temple Master took that child to Shaolin Temple. His name was Shi Xuyu.

He trained at Shaolin Temple for eight years - this is a true story - not a legend. It happened only 50 years ago. Then the Shaolin Temple Master said, "You can go." Shi Xuyu never went back to Shaolin Temple because he went into the army - an enemy army of Chairman Mao's - and then he joined with Chairman Mao. He had already become a general in the other army, so Chairman Mao didn't want to kill him, and saved him because he wanted him to bring his whole army to follow Chairman Mao. So, Chairman Mao saved his life. That's why he stayed with Chairman Mao his whole life. He died when he was around 85 or 90. He was the Chief of Staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force; so he was a very powerful guy. He was very small, his face very angry and ugly, and he was a really scary guy.

His martial arts were so amazing. So I think that's why Chairman Mao wanted martial arts ended. He saw his bodyguard, Shi Xuyu, was so good at training in martial arts. Can you imagine if somebody else - in China there are so many people who can do training very well - if somebody else used him, then what? So that's why he changed them to martial arts.

zhnag jian shu and zhang lipengBM: Chairman Mao made it illegal to train in martial arts?

Zhang Lipeng: Yes. All martial arts. You could not have swords or anything. He's the one who changed everything. That's why right now they have the modern martial arts and the history martial arts. In history martial arts you train one form for twenty years. In modern martial arts you jump up and down, you flip around; beautiful, nice movements-that's not kung fu. That stuff is only for looks.

BM: Do people train differently now from the way they did 300 years ago?

Zhang Lipeng: Yes. 300 years ago, the master did not look at your size. They trained all sizes - tall, short, skinny, fat. He looked at your spirit, your self-esteem. They did not look at your body. If you want to do it, anything is possible. So the master will teach you if you're a little bit bigger, he'll teach you something else. If you're small, they'll teach you other stuff. So, if you're skinny and small, the master is going to teach you swords - straight swords, or other swords. You'll be training with swords, one form, for twenty years every day. So when you have the sword, you can kill people in one second.

BM: Big or small, it doesn't matter.

Zhang Lipeng: It doesn't matter. That's the history way of training. In the modern way of training, they want to know how many forms you know; they classify you by size, and the fights are not fights, it's like punch, punch, grab somebody's leg, boom boom boom; hey, that's the modern way of fighting. They don't have real kung fu anymore. It's just if you're stronger or bigger or you know grappling, you know how to punch and kick, then you can fight. That's why people think if they've been training for a couple of years they can fight, but that's the modern way of martial arts.

BM: That means to me that kung fu is disappearing.

Zhang Lipeng: It is. It's the spirit. It's over. It's over. Do you know why it's over? Because the modern style, you don't need martial arts to protect the country. You don't need martial arts to protect your life. Nobody's going to kill you. In history, everybody would carry a big knife, a straight sword. It didn't matter where you went, if you went into a restaurant you would still carry a knife because you always had to defend yourself. Right now, if you want to kill somebody, you shoot him - you have a gun; you don't have to spend twenty years stuck in a mountain to do training. You don't need that stuff for revenge. That's why the history martial arts will slowly disappear.

BM: Why are they saying martial arts now are only an art and not self-defense?

Zhang Lipeng: The question of the arts right now - it's art now. It's not for training. You feel good and it makes people live longer, but can you really fight? No. You cannot fight. That's why when I was in Belgium, somebody who was training karate for 20 years said, "I cannot fight one street guy." Do you know why? Because he didn't train that way before. He trained for a couple of hours for 20 years. That doesn't mean anything. So right away you're going to treat martial arts like art. You cannot treat martial arts as a way to fight or to kill somebody. You can defend yourself better than people with no training, but you cannot fight against 20 people. It's not possible

BM: So martial arts now is getting to be more like ballet.

Zhang Lipeng: More like art, but ballet is only art, but with martial arts now you still can defend yourself. It's a combination. You still can defend yourself, but it's not like before. That's why the modern martial arts are very good for this modern time

BM: So, there is no real way that kung fu is going to come back because it's not needed anymore.

Zhang Lipeng: Not needed anymore.

shaolin master zhang jian shuBM: They do fighting now for sport...stuff like boxing.

Zhang Lipeng: That stuff has become like business.

In history, the fights led to death - to save themselves life. They didn't fight for twenty minutes; they'd fight for one minute or two seconds and then it's over. They didn't fight that long. You die or he dies. Your leg broken, his leg or arm broken - it's one second; then it's over. Can you imagine every day a small guy training with swords for twenty years - do you think he's gonna fight with you for twenty minutes? As soon as he moves his swords, you don't even know what's going on, you're already finished. It's over.

BM: What if you have two people who've been training for twenty years?

Zhang Lipeng: Then it depends on what did you do for 20 years. Also, it depends on who goes first.

If I start first, my speed is so fast you cannot even see. If I start first and he cannot defend against my sword, he dies. But, if he can defend, we start all over again and it takes a little bit longer. But those training with swords for twenty years, it takes one minute - or two minutes to end the war.

BM: Why are you promoting Shaolin martial arts if there is no kung fu anymore?

Zhang Lipeng: I trained at Shaolin Temple and I know how good they are. I went back there when I was 12 or 13 years old because I believed my future was there. I also realized that at that time it was not possible to train in the history style. Things were not like history anymore. That's why I left my family to go back to Shaolin Temple. When I was 16 I went to Belgium where they liked Chinese arts so much; I decided I wanted to go to Europe to promote Chinese Shaolin martial arts. That's why I treat this like art. I don't treat this like anything else. That's why right now I'm in the US - I just promote the art. That's why this year I'm organizing a competition; I'm going to try to do it every year to promote Shaolin arts and to let people know what is kung fu, what is going on in martial arts. The modern style is for me to promote. In history, there were different ways to promote. Right now I'm the one who was born in this modern generation. I am the one responsible to promote the modern way of the art. That's why I want to promote the Shaolin martial arts.

BM: Would you say that you are the last generation of actual kung fu?

Zhang Lipeng: When I was young, I trained much longer than the new generation. Right now, they can train at the Shaolin Temple for five or six years and then they can come and do the show.

zhang jjian shuBM: So we still call it "kung Fu," but we're really doing the forms?

Zhang Lipeng: Yes. The form is kung fu, but you have to train for a long time with one form. It's a different way of training.

BM: The forms may be the beginning of kung fu and then you have to take that form, and study it for 20 years.

Zhang Lipeng: Create the form.

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