syntax (noun) /ˈsinˌtaks/
1) the way in which linguistic elements (such as words) are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses)
2) a connected or orderly system : harmonious arrangement of parts or elements

Because I am traveling abroad, I've recently had the chance to speak about Kung Fu training with several different masters in several different languages. I've had to switch back and forth between Cantonese, English and Greek and make translations to have these individuals understand the theories that I was talking about. I found that I had to stop and change my mental process in order to adapt to the syntax of each language and to make the necessary translations to help each individual understand, because one language's syntax and mental process didn't necessarily match with the others. This made me pause and think about the syntax of Kung Fu and what it truly means as well as the difficulties that individuals have in learning and understanding their chosen system of martial arts. Like each spoken language, the syntax of each martial art system is different and needs a different thought process. Many individuals only use pure physical imitation to play their martial art. These individuals miss the true understanding they could gain by learning the language and syntax of their system.

When learning another language, everyone has to try to grasp the understanding and concepts behind the syntax of that language. To understand the syntax of a particular language, one needs to delve into the thought process of how that language is put together and utilized. When you speak English, you have to use English syntax, but when you speak a different language, you must be able to sync up with the syntax of that other language. This is no different than learning any martial art. Each martial art system may be comprised of similar movements, but the syntax — that is to say, the way it's put together — is different. Even though some martial arts systems may originate from the same source, the founders of those systems thought in a particular way and had a particular reason for structuring the syntax of that martial art.

The syntax of your system is the way it uses the body and its particular physical language, and how to properly put together all the movements to get the job done effectively and efficiently. You need to develop an understanding of the syntax of your chosen system. All of us have the same four limbs, torso, waist, head, eyes and physical parts; we all have a mentality; we all have a spirit. Every system uses these same attributes that each of us has, but each system puts them together in a different way. In other words, they may come to the same conclusion but arrive in a different manner. Each system has a different way of approaching and expressing the movement and getting to that final conclusion of making the movement work. This is what I mean by the syntax of your particular system. Delving deeper into it, any martial art – Karate, Judo, boxing, Kung Fu and so on – will each have a different syntax. This will require the individual to be able to change gears and be able to think and speak in that physical language differently.

In the beginning, when one starts to learn Kung Fu or many martial arts, there are basics that are taught. These basics are indispensable for learning the syntax of things to come. In the beginning, our teacher showed us basic stances: horse stance, front stance, tiger stance and so on, reverse punches, swing punches, uppercuts, kicking and all different techniques until we were able to follow along and put them together into a basic routine. The foundation in teachings of any particular system is rooted within the syntax of its basic movements. These must be ingrained in the individual practitioner so they innately understand them without having to think too much about it.

In learning another language, you first have to learn its alphabet system, or in the sense of the Chinese language, you have to learn all the brush strokes and how to put them together to create words. Words then create symbols which have meaning. The study of Kung Fu, since it is a Chinese language, follows that same philosophical idea. When you look at a Chinese character, it's a pictograph. It's a message and an idea, not necessarily just a letter as it would be in some other languages. Similarly, each movement in Kung Fu is the embodiment of an idea through action. The typical movement, the punch or kick, is also coupled with the stance, the body position, the angle and the twist of the body or the leg.

Therefor, when you see one particular movement, you're not looking at one movement, you're actually looking at several meanings combined together. Just because a particular position looks like something doesn't necessarily mean that it is that thing. To use the old Chinese proverb, 一張圖片勝過千言萬語, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is an apropos way of looking at learning Kung Fu, particularly when looking at basic postures and forms. You can decipher many things from looking at one particular stance or position. It could mean a hand strike, a takedown, a sweep, a kick – not just whatever is most obvious to most people. Many of us, when we first start training, are masters of the obvious, but this is not what is hidden within the syntax of Kung Fu training and forms. To understand the true meaning of Chinese martial arts and its syntax, you must understand that a movement is compound. It is not just one movement but could be several movements with several different variations of applications all depending on the understanding of the individual. It will take a long time for a student that is not used to this type of syntax to decipher what is being shown. You may look at a particular movement and see something, then look at it again several years later and see something else. Therefor, you have to have a good grasp of the syntax of that particular language. This is not easy to come by. Fluency and understanding will only come from daily practice of your forms and with your partner, under the guidance of a competent and knowledgeable instructor.

When the basics are ingrained in the individual and digested to the point that they can start stringing simple movements together, this is akin to putting together basic words from the alphabet system that you have learned. From there, you can construct simple sentences. As time passes, and your writing skills become better, i.e., your martial arts skills become better, you are able to "write" and create more movements with complexity and depth. Words lead to sentences; sentences lead to paragraphs; paragraphs lead to pages; pages lead to an entire book. An entire book can be seen as a form; both minor and major forms serve as different types of training vehicles.

You can go through the physical manipulation of whatever techniques are set down in front of you, but without understanding the actual grammatical structure of the system, what it's trying to achieve, and how it's putting together all the different pieces to accomplish one particular action or group of actions, you will never be able to understand the true meaning of what you are practicing, nor will you be able to access the deeper meanings or the nuances of the syntax there within. Learning and understanding the syntax of your given school or system is indispensable because this is going to give you the tools of understanding that will allow you to apply your movements just as fluently as you would speak another language. In order to get this fluency in your martial arts, you need to practice on a daily basis. It is impossible to learn and speak a language fluently if you don't use it regularly. This goes without saying. Exactly the same is true about martial arts training. It has to be done on a daily basis and utilized regularly in order to maintain its sharpness. Otherwise, you end up looking like a Kung Fu tourist with a phrase book in hand, always messing up what you are trying to say. If you're a tourist trying to speak a language you don't really know, this only makes you look foolish in front of a native speaker. But in the sense of martial arts training, you may end up getting hurt. This is why it's so important to have complete command over all your basics, including strikes, blocks, kicks and so on. When true fluency is found through understanding the syntax of the individual practitioner's system, they can begin to utilize and literally speak with their hands and feet and entire body and express the true essence of their system.

The ultimate expression of the individual comes from their understanding and fluency in the syntax of their system. Everyone can express themselves in their own way as long as they master this syntax and understand the nuances within. Then, no one individual is correct or incorrect. We all speak in our own way using the same language to express our understanding. Therefor, Kung Fu is limitless and its expression boundless as long as we understand the syntax of the given system we have chosen to study.

-Sifu Paul Koh