Kata As The Foundation Of Practice
By Christopher Caile
It was the summer of 1985. It had rained all morning
and now the moisture lay like a thick wet blanket
in the sweltering heat that lingered in the late afternoon.
I was following my friend Lee down the street in the
suburbs of Toronto. He turned into an alley and then
beckoned me down a rickety set of wooden stairs into
the basement tucked below what I would later find
out was a Chinese restaurant. He followed.
It was like stepping through some time machine into
the martial arts of old China. There in the dim light
were a half dozen Chinese students, their tee shirts
and shorts soaked with sweat, their arms glistening
as they punched, blocked and did forms. Watching them
was an older gentleman sitting on a stool off to one
When they saw me, everything stopped. You could see,
"who is this person?" in the eyes that turned
towards us. Even though Lee was behind me, several
of the students stepped forward to block my way, but
the old gentleman barked a few curt words and the
students stepped aside like the water of the Dead
Sea parting before Moses. A faint smile greeted me
when Lee introduced me to the old gentleman, his uncle
and Sifu (teacher).
I had known Lee for about five years in Buffalo while
he was a student at the State University of New York
at Buffalo. We first met when I was introduced to
him while looking for someone to translate some martial
arts material into English from Chinese. We had been
friends ever since. Whenever the subject of martial
arts came up, he never mentioned any knowledge. He
showed no interest at all in the karate I was then
teaching at the University. After about three years,
however, he announced that he now knew me well enough
to say something about his family fighting discipline.
It didn't have a name, he said, "just family
system," although he noted that his uncle now
did teach a couple of non-family students up in Canada.
Lee said he had studied it off and on since he was
a young boy. And since his uncle had no son, the family
was looking for him to return to Canada to take over
the system once he was finished with his education.
The system had been passed down for six generations,
starting in the mountain area in China which was the
birthplace of Taoism. His family had later moved to
southern China and then Hong Kong. Hs father and uncle
moved to Canada after WWII. Being a martial arts researcher
and interested in the Chinese influence on the development
of karate, I asked him if there was a chance I could
meet his uncle, and maybe even see or practice with
At that time Lee wasn't very optimistic that his
uncle would see me, but he himself taught me a few
basics. But there were conditions. I could not mention
to anyone what I was studying, or that I was studying
at all, not even to my family. If I ever showed or
demonstrated their techniques to anyone outside the
system, training would immediately end, he said. "I
am showing you part of my family system," he
said, adding that I had assumed a great burden, his
When I asked Lee about the reason for secrecy, he
said his family believed that no one should know you
have martial skills, much less ever see them. That
way there would be no challenges or threats from authority.
And, if and when self-defense was needed, the attacker
or attackers would be totally surprised, less able
to counter or defeat what they had never seen, or
much less suspected. Their art was their advantage,
he added, there if ever needed. Also, it led to long
life and health. His uncle's father in Hong Kong had
taught the art into his 80's and had been powerful
right up to the time of his death at 89.
It took two years and countless additional requests
through Lee, but finally here I was in Toronto looking
into the eyes of his uncle. I knew his uncle didn't
like or trust Westerners very much, but maybe as a
trusted friend of his nephew . . .
I was allowed to begin. The basement room was about
15 feet wide and 30 feet long. The floor was wood,
the ceiling was low, lights dim and there was no air-conditioning,
nor much heat in the winter, I would learn. In a tall
locked wooden cabinet at the end of the room were
weapons and other special training equipment. As to
the class itself, there was no structure. We would
meet at a designated time, bow to the Sifu and then
begin assigned practice on our own. There were no
group drills, no uniforms, no ranks or titles.
In basic English Sifu instructed me, "do this"
and later "now, do this." The first several
months of training were limited to fundamentals. There
were warm ups and finger strengthening techniques,
basic punching/blocking (combined) drills that were
also combined with stepping. There was also emphasis
on basic "foundation" exercises to develop
power. These involved rapid twisting of the trunk
(rather than the hip) combined with collapsing or
expansion of the chest, spine and torso (depending
on the technique). When combined with proper breath,
these elements produced loose explosive and very powerful
Lee had also cautioned me to practice only what I
was taught and not try to observe or follow more advanced
students. If I wanted to observe, I was to do so out
of the corner of my eye while exercising. "Don't
practice anything my uncle (Sifu) hasn't shown you
himself," I was cautioned. Months later when
once or twice I did try to use a move I had observed
a more advanced student do, I was quickly cautioned
to wait for the teacher to teach me that move.
It took three months before Sifu showed me the first
introductory move of a kata -- how to start, followed
by two double hand moves with a twist of the body
and an elbow strike. With great attention to detail,
Sifu demonstrated the technique slowly a few times,
then at normal speed. His technique was so powerful
and fast that it was just an explosive blur. Thereafter
the one admonition I heard over and over was "relax,"
although it took me several practices to know what
was said. Even though Sifu spoke basic English, his
accent was so strong that I often had to turn to another
student for translation. To help me there was Lee,
but also a Toronto cop, who was both open to my studying
and a good translator too. Several other students,
Lee told me, were upset that any non-Chinese had been
allowed into their art.
About this time Sifu also taught me the first qi
gong (method of energy development) exercise, to be
practiced before and at the end of every practice.
Warm ups and stretching was then followed by basic
foundation exercises. The remaining time was spent
with kata. Over and over I practiced the basic first
moves that Sifu had shown me -- with speed, but with
attention to proper form. No nuance was too minor,
every hand position, angle of movement and foot position
was practiced -- maybe five hundred to a thousands
times in one practice. Lee and the friendly student
cop would also often stop me to again demonstrate
the precise hand, trunk/pelvis, shoulder and arm movements,
each movement leading to the next without hesitation,
without stopping. Over the ensuing months moves were
To learn the first kata took over a year. Up to this
point there had been no freefighting, but basic two
man drills had been added, each employing techniques
from the first kata. The teacher also gave me a bottle
of home made dit dat jow (a Chinese herbal anti-inflammatory
and healing lotion) that I was told to rub on my joints
before and after practice. With Iron Palm training
there was another concoction.
There were only four or five kata in the system that
I could see, each teaching a variety of more sophisticated
techniques. There was also a pole (similar to the
bo in the Japanese martial arts) as well as other
weapon kata too. The speed of execution is what surprised
me most. A kata of about 80 moves was completed in
under 30 seconds.
In class Sifu would often show us applications too.
A student would attack with a grab, punch or kick,
and right there out of the kata would be the counter,
usually a very powerful one too. Then Sifu would demonstrate
other applications for the same technique. Students
would then practice these self-defense moves in pairs,
over and over. Whenever Sifu demonstrated on me, however,
the whole technique seemed to change. I think he found
some humor in the way he was able to manhandle me.
When he grabbed my arm, for example, his fingers penetrated
deeply, like the jaws of some animal. It was painful.
At other times his grab or push was so powerful I
was literally pulled forward off my feet or thrown
backwards to the ground. The power was amazing.
Lee told me that practice fighting was avoided until
the correct movements and techniques were so engrained
that the student used them automatically. To help
in this process there were two person drills that
used offensive and defensive (punching, kicking, blocking,
parrying and counter movements) techniques taken from
the kata we had learned. Only after these drills had
been mastered were students allowed to start practice
My training in this unique Chinese family system
taught me a lot about kata and its original meaning
and function. I now better understand what the early
karate masters meant when they said that kata was
the foundation, the essence and primary training tool
of karate itself.
I asked Lee's permission before writing this account.
Like myself, Lee said that he and Sifu felt that too
much knowledge of ancient principles and concepts
were being lost. Therefore I could say a little, but
not too much. They hoped others could learn from what
their own family had so cherished and practiced over
the centuries. At their request some things were omitted
and others modified. And, of course, my friend's name
was not Lee, and we did not train in Toronto.
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About The Author:
Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief
of FightingArts.com, is a historian, writer and researcher
on the martial arts and Japanese culture. A martial
artist for over 40 years he holds a 6th degree black
belt in karate and is experienced in judo, aikido,
daito-ryu, itto-ryu, boxing, and several Chinese arts.
He is also a teacher of qi gong.
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