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I am not an expert in Kung fu, but having seen some tutorials it seems to me that it's useless in a street fight because of the following two reasons.

First of all the stances are ridiculous, for example the eagle stance is one of the worst stances I have ever seen, you basically stand on one leg in a squat position, why would anyone want to fight like that? The problem with the stances is that they require a lot of training just to be able to sit in the stance, they are very uncomfortable and waste a lot of energy for no particular reason.

Second, the other problem is that many moves require a lot of energy and in my opinion it's easy to miss, many moves are acrobatics essentially and I see no reason why to do this unless it's for a show.

Please note that I am not trying to insult Kung Fu practicioners but rather trying to understand how this can be useful. Also I am referring mostly to animal style Kung Fu and similar styles like wushu, shaolin Kung Fu etc. I am not referring to wing Chun and Jeet kune do, which I Know are very useful for self defense.

So, having said that, can Kung Fu be useful for self defense?

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    You might be interested in Xu Xiaodong. Or some compilations of masters getting beaten up by actual fighters like this one: youtube.com/watch?v=oNDE_WmTU00
    – Džuris
    Sep 4 at 14:08
  • classical MA have limited use, you want practicality then krav maga, mma, etc. is the way to go. However the most relevant MA for street is to calm the situation down and even better get the hell out of there before anything starts. There was an article or a video why there is no such thing as knife fight. Enjoy the practice but never get in a situation that it is needed.
    – jimjim
    Sep 5 at 12:43
  • My gut feeling is that once you have mastered these crazy, hard-to do stances and exercises you are really good at defending yourself against the average mugger. ;-). Sep 6 at 8:42
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    If I was mugging a guy on the street, and the first thing he did was take up an eagle stance, I think I would run and find a different target. Sep 6 at 16:01
  • @ Silvio Mayolo | I'd mug that guy every day :) Sep 25 at 7:08

11 Answers 11

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Stances

Like squats or push-ups, stance training is often not directly about fighting, but in acquiring strength, flexibility, and coordination.

Acrobatics

Modern wushu is closer to gymnastics, a display of athleticism and not really for fighting. Large flashy movements have always been crowd-pleasers with questionable fighting utility.


Kung fu is a rather large umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of styles, many of them with little in common. As you have already decided that some are useful, without more specificity it's sufficient to say that some kung fu is useful for self defense.

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  • Just to add a bit here, a lot of kung fu is more, demonstration oriented. The flips and crazy stances show that the practitioners have a lot of strength and flexibility. Like most martial artists, Kung fu practitioners still know how to throw normal kicks and punches.
    – Nick
    Sep 19 at 0:55
  • Normal "kicks" take a crazy lot of training from being thrown for demonstration to being used for combat. I doubt whether the kung fu practitioners could do the latter... Sep 25 at 7:11
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I don't think it's possible to give an answer to such a broad question, other than to say something along the lines of It can be, to the extent that... It trains on realistic, damage-inflicting strikes, with "realistic" indicating targeting realistic targets (e.g., knife hands to the neck are not open if the guy has his guard up), and not many (if any) high kicks or fancy spins. (I do ITF TKD, and wouldn't try such things in a real situation.) It builds strength. It does a lot of practicing and sparring against resisting opponents. It involves striking bags to build up "hitting hard" skills. It trains on footwork. It involves occasionally getting hit in the head or face so that you don't go down the first time that happens.

And what you're really asking is "is it useful for fighting", but that's only one small aspect of self-defense. Others are not placing yourself in sketchy situations, staying sober, being situationally aware, not arguing with other people, being agreeable to following friendly suggestions such as "get out of here right now or I'm'a kick your a**", recognizing body language indicating impending attacks, knowing how to place yourself so as to defend against strikes, and being able to run fast.

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    The second part of this answer is deflecting to the point of proving OP right - what you mention there obviously goes for every martial arts. I don't know if that was the intention, but this answer seems to indicate that Kung Fu is in fact useless in a fight, compared to other martial arts.
    – pipe
    Sep 4 at 23:55
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    Yes, the OP's two points are very valid IMO. No, I think that a fighting system based in any martial art would have useful elements, but am only pointing out that one can train realistically or unrealistically. When answering I admit I was a bit fed up with "Is X effective" questions. And my second paragraph is because I think that even on this board, with probably a good number of "advanced" practitioners, a lot of people seem to assume that their leet skills will take care of any confrontations and there won't be any physical, legal, or emotional messiness involved in fights. Sep 6 at 14:01
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Knowing kung fu is one thing, applying it is something else. You have to recognise what to do when you are being attacked. There is no standard kung-fu: there are lots of different types that are all grouped together and called kung fu. There is no standards body for kung fu.

The purpose of a stance is for stability in a particular situation. The teacher may not always tell you - sometimes it is a secret that they will only divulge when you've been learning under them for 10 years. I was told a secret after 5 years. You just think "is that it?" Sometimes you need to mull over the secret, why it is a secret and what you did before you knew the secret.

A lot of what you learn in most martial arts is 1-2-1 close quarters fighting. What if you get multiple attackers? Can your brain think fast enough to handle 3 or 5? You always need to worry about the opponent's mate who is behind you. Alternatively line them up so you can handle one at a time.

Some of the techniques defy logic. It is normal to stay some distance from your opponent. Sometimes, you have to be brave enough to get closer to your opponent. If you get close enough, there is no space for either of you to do the kicks. You are down to hand, knee and elbow techniques but you have to be brave enough to get closer.

Some of the techniques are not only for defence, they are for maiming or killing your opponent. They are attacking you but are you mentally capable of applying the techniques you have learnt to maim or kill them. It is you or them but can you do it?

During practice sessions or when sparring, you do not follow through the moves. You normally stop at the critical point just before you hit your opponent. In an attack on yourself, you have to follow through but you've been practicing not following through for so long, can you follow through or will the fact that your opponent knows you could smash his nose be enough to make him stop?

To most people, "he knows kung fu" is enough to deter an attack. That is as good a form of self defence as any.

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Yes, but:

  1. Kung Fu is an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts. There's hundreds of them and many are very different from each other.
  2. Whether or not a historical martial art is practical for self-defence depends more on how it is trained than on its techniques. Yes, the techniques need to be practical on a basic level, but most martial arts are effective in the circumstances they were created for (if that circumstance is fighting with a halberd you may not see much use). If you train a martial art with its applications and involve proper and regular sparring and body conditioning it's probably going to work. Sparring and crosstraining are pretty good at filtering out what works and what doesn't. The issue is that martial arts (especially far eastern ones in the west) are often practiced as gymnastics and dance with esoteric and philosophical elements, which makes them useless for self-defence, because martial applications aren't properly taught and never trained on resisting partners. Moreover, in China traditional martial arts were largely eradicated and in their stead modern Wushu was created, which had its combat applications systematically stripped out and replaced with pure acrobatics and showmanship. I do consider many traditional arts less practical for our contemporary use cases, but they're generally good enough for self-defence as long as you train for combat.
  3. It also has to be said that for many martial arts the legends have overwritten the history and a lot of teachers don't actually know themselves how some techniques were practically used or in what context the art was created. That's not to say it's forbidden secret knowledge, but it's not common knowledge for the typical Friday afternoon karate teacher. As such, sometimes teachers will honestly try to teach some laughably impractical applications. I refer you to the answers of this question for examples. That and bullshido artists exist, obviously.
  4. Most martial arts have more and less grounded (pun intended) techniques. The more spectacular but less practical ones tend to show up a lot in exhibitions and movies, because they just look more impressive than the straightforward practical ones. But almost every martial art has those practical ones as well. This is a natural development as exhibition becomes more important than application, compare olympic Taekwondo and its prevalence of high kicks, because those score the most points.
  5. Stances aren't only combat positions. Yes, there are guards that you can take in combat, but that's not the only type. There are stances that are transitional, positions you move through during certain techniques but don't remain in during combat. There are stances intended for training, in order to improve your (especially lower body) strength, endurance and flexibility. I know from experience that trying to practice something like Bajiquan without properly conditioning your lower body can damage your ankle and knee joints, because the muscles aren't strong enough to absorb the shock of your weight distribution rapidly changing. Lastly, in forms a stance can be shorthand for several possible options. A cat stance (all weight on the back foot) for example can signify a retreating motion or a kick.

All in all, while I wouldn't recommend a traditional art to someone primarily looking for self-defence, if you're interested in a traditional art, you can use it for self-defence as long as you find a school that is qualified and willing to train you that way and you're willing to do that training.

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The training I was getting was divided in three parts:

  • Traditional
  • Acrobatics
  • Utility

Acrobatics were useless in a fight, but built strength and elasticity of the body. That's something you always want to have in a fight. I dropped that part because frankly I was too fat and too old for this.

Traditional was flashy, sure, but I was able to kick old rusty garage doors shut, when guys larger than me, pumped with muscle mass, couldn't. Would I use this flashy kick in a real fight? No way! But it showed me that traditional flashy moves can have something in them. Also, traditional training built stamina. Uncomfortable stances and flashy moves require a lot of energy, especially when you begin (some of them became strangely comfortable later).

Utility part was like traditional, but distilled to stances, kicks and hits that are most useful. It wasn't really all that different from my wife's krav maga moves or my friends' kickboxing moves, honestly. It did save my butt a couple of times, and I didn't even needed to really hurt the other guy, and that's always nice if police ma be involved.

So, can kung fu be useful in self-defence? It always is, just to a different degree and in different ways. It is good to know what exactly your school offers under the term, and if it offers more than one variant, to choose which one(s) you want to train.

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Having been to two different traditional Kung Fu schools, I'll say that an average person would not want to get into a fight with any of the more advanced students or masters, at least that I have met. So in a nutshell, the answer to the question "Is (training) Kung-Fu useful for self defence?" the answer is "Yes" if the alternative is not training at all.

Any serious Kung Fu training will start you off with basic stances, punches, kicks, blocks and whatnot. The animal forms are usually part of a later and more advanced regimen. You wouldn't want to go into the 'Eagle' stance you pointed out in a street fight, similarly to how you wouldn't want to go into an active war in the desert wearing your parade uniform.

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Oh hell yes.

Very few people on the planet can beat Georges St-Pierre, even today, in a real fight. 99.9999% of the couldn't even go the distance. But Jet Li, who is not a fighter, can go the distance. There's nothing GSP can do or try that Jet doesn't have a counter for, and Jet is probably a little faster. As long as Jet doesn't try to win, Jet can go, and therefore not lose. Jet can even probably go longer if he just defends, defends, defends, because he spends less energy.

(This is why Jet's portrayal of Wong Feihung is so great, even when the real Wong was Hung Gar. Jet's portrayal was of the gentle guy who could always go the distance and outlast, because he was so precise and flexible. That's why the action sequences still exceed almost everything we see today. And John Wick is good, but Keanu is still just an "advanced beginner", maybe "intermediate". And Jet got very rich, deservedly, from all that "eating bitter" to be that good. GSP's recent choreography is also better than almost everyone else. GSP once again reinforces his strengths in all aspects of the arts:)

Chinese martial arts are criticized as being "too strategic", and perhaps not unfairly, criticized as being less powerful. (My perspective on is Karate is that they may not wrong. Respect Karate—they're the best at what they do.)

The Chinese reverence for strategy is probably more the influence of Kongming than even Sun Tzu, because the history of the Three Kingdoms would be different without Zhuge Liang.

(In the west we have this in with Odysseus, best loved by Athena, Goddess of Strategy, but he young tend towards "the rage of Achilles"—both can be optimal in the correct domains, and dependent on what one is willing to sacrifice.)

If strategy wasn't more important than power, the history of insurgencies in the 20th century would be very different. Strategy can have many dimensions.

Traditional Wushu / Kung Fu (Practical Wushu)

  • Has maintained the old school training methods and lore
  • Lifelong teacher student teacher relationships
  • A community of practitioners across styles
  • Advanced leg-grappling
  • Hard core isometrics and strengthening
  • Basics for internal styles later in life
  • Full contact an option

Contemporary Wushu / Competition Wushu

  • Arguably the best core training there is
  • Know every type of attack and every counter
  • Have practiced said techniques millions of times
  • First rate posture
  • First rate body mechanics
  • Advanced footwork
  • Quickness/speed

The main function of traditional is to preserve the arts faithfully, while, ideally, continuing to advance them in every generation. The main function of competition is an Olympic sport, that can be judged technically, similar to mens and women's gymnastics. Both intersect with the film industry, as performing art has never been separate from martial art in Chinese history, so far as we know. One must study these arts to some depth to separate out the "medicine show" components from the practical martial techniques, which are not usually the things that "wow", but the little stuff in between.

All martial arts have value! The caveat is that there must be some martial purpose, even indirect, or it is not martial art.

Train hard. That is the only true martial art. And, if possible, find a good teacher.

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    Who or what is GSP? I think the "Jet" you talk about is the actor / martial artist Jet Li, but this answer starts off like the middle of a conversation. Especially given that it's on Hot Network Questions, some full names and preferably context would be appropriate for people who don't already know what you're talking about. Sep 4 at 3:32
  • Georges St-Pierre, one of the few prize fighters I rank up there with Ali and the two Sugar Rays! Thanks for the note. Updated answer.
    – DukeZhou
    Sep 4 at 4:37
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    Just a suggestion, I think Jet Li is more commonly called "Li", not "Jet".
    – Andrew T.
    Sep 4 at 11:58
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    Do you have any proof (like actual fights) that Jet Li could do anything against a MMA fighter?
    – Džuris
    Sep 4 at 13:55
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    @DukeZhou Isn't the internet full of videos of accomplished Chinese martial arts practitioners getting annihilated by MMA fighters? Not saying all martial arts don't have value or make you stronger, faster, etc, but so far no Kung Fu practitioner has ever entered the UFC to take on GSP, or any other high level fighter and succeeded. Sep 5 at 0:46
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To reframe this slightly: is a traditional martial useful for self defense.

For all of them, the answer is yes.

Traditional martial arts are those where the Tradition of the martial art is important. This means that the martial artists like to actively keep things more or less as they are, including enjoying the cultural background/"coloring" (for example, rituals like bowing and using certain words or phrases in the originating language, even if nobody in the dojo talks that language naturally). Very often this aspect is more important than changing non-"working" techniques. Also, when the art does not include sparring, this is basically guaranteed, as there is no way to find out whether a technique actually works as advertised.

There is nothing wrong with all of that - we have many hobbies and activities where the tradition of doing it is very important, often much more important than improving the "performance" (whatever that may be). For example, some people enjoy shooting simple bows made by hand from a strip of wood much more than using a high tech modern bow which would be much more easy to actually hit the target with.

Many martial arts have internal rules which make them not as flexible or optimal in a given setting (say, self defense) as other martial arts which specifically change themselves frequently to do well in such circumstances. For example, Aikido has very formalized hand "striking" which resembles sword strikes much more than any actual strike you would ever see anywhere else. Most striking/kicking arts except noticably Muay Thai forbid certain strikes and kicks, often making a distinction for elbows and knees. And so on and so forth.

I am not that familiar with Kung Fu - but I do know that the term is a generic one which encompasses a wild variety of concrete arts, so I cannot really tell you if any one of them includes adapting specifically to self defense.

But every traditional martial art has in common that it takes mental discipline, frustration tolerance and often considerable athletic skill, endurance, mobility and so on. Also, being kind of proficient in a martial art means that you have faced quite some challenge and frustration and came through it, very likely making you just a little bit more relaxed. This alone may make it so that in an actual self defense situation, while your martial art may not necessarily have any concrete technique in its repertoire which would free you "right now", it may help you not get into the situation in the first place.

You might exude a bit more of a "tough opponent" image to your assailant (robbers may ignore you for easier targets). You may be able to run faster or longer and thus get away due to the strenuous training. You might just surprise the attacker with a quick attack from the arsenal of your art before you yourself get into a physical defensive position, if you decide that the situation has escalated past talking. You may have heard in your dojo that being surrounded by multiple enemies is usually fatal, and may position yourself in a way to avoid that. You might have learned how to fall correctly and thus survive the first hit just to be able to run away.

Things along that line are at least more likely than if you had never trained any martial art whatsoever, so training any martial art at all is better than training none.

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Based on experience, I have to say it teaches you to never underestimate opponents, approach situations seriously, avoid conflicts with the best of your ability and if there is absolutely no way to avoid conflict then yes, proceed with resolution, efficiency, and finish it as soon as possible, then get out of the place. Sometimes the best defense is to run, some others (if you're being robbed, for instances) is to give up your wallet, etc as material things can be recovered but loss of life cannot. Keep in mind if you have doubts you shouldn't act. To be absolutely sure you can act, you must train and put yourself under constant tests, enough to become familiar with similar scenarios.

Doesn't mean you're invincible. Actually it is a constant learning experience and you have to be humble about it.

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  • Are you trying to say "Kung Fu" teaches all this? Because many answers already pointed out that this umbrella term is not worth much for discussing the self-defense applicability. Sep 6 at 15:38
  • I believe it depends on both what you're being taught and what can you conclude from such teachings, your experience and even your own psychology. As you mature in the system (and as a person) you learn that the most effective tactic is to avoid putting yourself in danger. With that said, in a combat context, regardless of the technique, in my experience, the best ones are the easiest to learn, faster to perform, the ones that makes the best use of your speed and strenght. Several styles provides such moves. Real combat-oriented kung fu styles in particular can give you the basics for this. Sep 6 at 17:34
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Although I have not formally done much Kung Fu, I did once use a Wing Chun punch in a real fight and it was effective (this is the short sharp punch where the elbow starts on the hip and the fist drives up into the chest of the opponent). What I noticed about this punch was that the person was not expecting it at all, as people are normally used to big looping boxing-type punches. I doubt that Kung Fu would have survived for the length of time that it has if it was not in some degree effective.

If anything, it probably just helps you to know your limits. Sometimes people arrive at a martial arts dojo literally thinking that they are invincible. I have seen someone try to fight a group of people and instantly be pinned to the ground and kicked unconscious. Perhaps if they did martial arts they would know to walk away. Videos of ''master such-and-such'' at dojo XYZ getting beaten up in a fight don't change my statement and are irrelevant.

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  • This answer is neither informed («I don't do any martial arts myself, but /../») nor does it address any of the OP questions or assertions. Sep 7 at 17:29
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I've been practicing Kung Fu (Wushu) for 3 years now. Here is my honest take on it:

Wushu/ Kung Fu can equip you with the tools (kicks, punches etc.) you need to defend yourself. As a matter of fact, I would argue that Kung Fu practitioners are amongst the best athletes and performers in terms of execution. However, it's more about how you use those tools and apply them to a real life situation. This goes for any martial arts style.

It's like having a big expensive tool chest in your garage with all of the best equipment. However if you have no knowledge of mechanics then its unlikely you will be successful in the use of your tools.

The issue, as is noted by people already, is how you are trained. Pure contemporary Wushu does not put a lot of emphases on combat application. It will provide a great foundation for form and execution, athleticism, flexibility, speed and strength. If you can find a coach who was professionally trained, they can usually teach you both Wushu and Sanda, where Sanda is more like a fighting application of Wushu. However these individuals can be hard hard to find.

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