Becoming A Sifu


Sifu Ted, Sifu Linda, me and Sifu Lam, along with fellow students, Phil, John and Jerome after we did a Kung Fu demo at the County Fair in the mid-80s.

When do you become a Sifu? The simple answer is you become a Sifu when other people start calling you a Sifu. A more legitimate answer is you become a Sifu when your Sifu says you’re a Sifu. However, like many aspects of Chinese culture, there’s simple answers, and then there’s a deep dive. At the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts, we like those deep dives.

The title “Sifu” is a fine example of simple answers versus deep dives. On the simplest level, it’s the Chinese term for ‘master.’ It gets complex when you go deeper. “Sifu” is the Cantonese pronunciation, which sounds kind of like “sea-fu.” Master Ted Mancuso’s lineage has both Cantonese and Mandarin influences. Among his masters are Grandmaster Adam Hsu from Taiwan where they speak Mandarin and Grandmaster Kwong Wing Lam from Hong Kong where Cantonese is spoken. In Mandarin, it’s “Shifu,” which sounds a bit like “sure-fu.” Although Cantonese and Mandarin use the same written characters, there are regional dialect distinctions and vast idiomatic differences, so the comparison isn’t always an X=X relationship. This gets even more complicated, deserving of an essay of its own, so we won’t dwell on it too much here. At the Academy, we generally default to the Cantonese, most likely because that set the precedent in the 70s and 80s when Kung Fu was beginning to cross the Pacific. Continue reading

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Better With Age

After class the other day my student Harvey, who has studied with me for more than 15 years, asked me a pointed question: “How and why does a longtime practitioner maintain his or her interest in studying Tai Chi?” This caught my attention immediately, because he asked me to consider it from the advanced study point of view, not the more common basic level.

wu tu nan

Wu Tu Nan

After 50 years practicing Tai Chi, I admit that the shoe may be old, but it still fits.

I went home and wrote this question at the top of a page of wide-ruled yellow paper: “What is the attractive secret of Tai Chi that encourages people to play the game without getting bored?”

I immediately filled the page with notes outlining all the remarkable qualities of Tai Chi; for example, how the slow pace encourages curative postures and uniformity of movement, and how this allows us to craft our life instead of violating it. Tai Chi adjusts you to rhythms of action rarely seen in daily life. Conforming to an attack also teaches you to conform to terrain, timing, other classmates—a rainbow of patterns. Continue reading

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Bear Bones

Thanks to our student, John, for sending this to us. And as one keen observer on youtube noted, those are three-sectioned sticks, not nunchakus. Not that the bear cares…

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Chang Gong

Whether you are the ancient hermit of the Dark Forest or a week-in week-out practitioner, martial training always rewards perseverance with increased skills you have gathered and accumulated like rain. Skills like these come mostly from just hanging in there and that’s the reason they stay in the shadows, unnoticed.

The results of CHANG GONG, or “Long Practice,” signify skills that comes as messages through time. Its ceaseless evolution allows practitioners to keep track of their progress, even if just stockpiling. But maybe there is a better way to say this: Chang Gong is NOT a method you seek, but an unexpected outcome of continuous attention. This unhurried yet rewarding quest for skill is unequalled in its effectiveness. Nowadays it is called a superpower, moving forward but not yet peaking.

A friend of mine asked his brother—a Juilliard graduate who played flute, professionally—how long it would take to lay a decent foundation with the instrument. The musician looked skyward—a moment of contemplation was all that was needed—the answer: 15 years.

Although Chang Gong is evident when watching great teachers or world-class competitors, in this article I concentrate NOT on the master or soon-to-be master, but on those people who receive, at most, a pat on the back for their own skills. In those, too, we discover the alchemical development of Chang Gong, what Daoist practitioners call “bringing the extraordinary out of the ordinary.” It is here, near you and all around you: ordinary abilities coupled with the phenomenal, coming out of the mere pedestrian. Continue reading

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Stretching For the Art

You’ve finished your workout and the idea comes to you: why not stretch a little? It can only help, right? But immediately your brain floods with questions: How important is it to stretch? If I have just worked out, is stretching necessary? Which is the best for me and, even more importantly, which should I avoid? And, as a martial artist, which stretches best fit my style?

Any stretching related to Chinese martial practice could be associated with more than 300 different martial branches, consequently presenting a tremendous range of stretching and pliability options, along with related foundational interpretations. Add in gyms, fencing schools, and physical therapies and you can see that guidelines could help in this explosion of choices. Continue reading

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Adam Hsu on Chen Style Taijiquan

It is no secret that we at Plum greatly admire Adam Hsu (Hsu Ji) and his teachings. We have published some of his books and DVDs, excerpted and reprinted articles, and referenced his many principles and theories. He is also our teacher.

Although many have read his works and seen his videos, it’s not exactly the same as being able to take a class with Master Hsu. So it is with happiness that we are able to share this (free) excellent video of him giving a short lesson at his regular location in Taiwan, on Chen Tai Chi Chuan applications practice.



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Sanshou: Partner Practice in the Age of Quarantine

Why is partner practice so different from solo practice? In my daily Taijiquan practice in a time of sheltering-in-place, the answer of course is quite obvious. As a martial artist, I find I am missing the feedback I feel, the energy from a partner’s response, and our discussion as we explore via push hands, partner forms, and apply specific applications taken from our Yang and Chen Taijiquan sets. But on the other hand, practicing by myself for many years, I have learned to use my imagination as I focus my Yi, my intent, on how my spiraling energy wraps around an imaginary arm, leg, or body, and how I am potentially responding to an opponent’s approach.

Have I been practicing by myself in my backyard? Yes. And as such, my imagination runs wild! But I must confess, twice a week during this time of sheltering at home I have been meeting with a friend to connect, practice, and learn from each other. I have to say that being outside, physically distancing while practicing different forms and weapon sets has been safe and beneficial. I still can watch and learn, ask questions, and discuss a move’s application and meaning. But honestly, partner practice has intrigued me the most when we meet.

I am calling it physically distant partner practice (PDPP?). Specifically, we have challenged ourselves to relearn an interactive form we learned years ago: Sanshou. This is a two-person set that relies on the interaction between two people in contact with each other. There are many, many Sanshou sets. In all of them, through an exchange of attacks and blending responses, one intercepts and melds with a wide variety of attacks, and then returns an appropriate response that flows naturally. It is a stylistic, dynamic, honest set of stimuli and responses between two people. One learns to feel small changes that become large, responding by touch and movement to turn an opponent’s attack into one’s own attack.

Now how does one relearn and then refine a two-person set without being able to be within 8 feet of each other? It isn’t that hard to relearn it: as the one who remembers it (mostly), we could move in parallel, just like we originally learned it, rehearsing as we would any form. We filled in each other’s gaps of memory. But putting the two sides into practice against each other became more problematic.

We start a good twelve feet apart, facing each other. I found that simply mimicking the progression through the moves became entangled with my thinking: What does this mean? When is the right timing? To what am I responding? Suddenly, two brains remembering the set in a rote way while applying it visually (and not by feel) became a bit of a problem. I found that while I could see an attack coming (eight feet away!) and could respond to it, it was completely different from feeling the actual, physical energy coming my way. And since my partner was relearning this set from a more distant memory, she often became confused as to what came next with the most sensible response.

So we talked about it. We would stop and discuss as we rehearsed a particular cycle of attack and response. And, we found we could hold a dialog as we moved through the set. “I am shoulder stroking you, so you shift back, wipe underneath your arm to catch my elbow, and using the resulting spiraling energy, launch a hook punch. No, no, with the other arm!”

Continue reading

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Practiced Intent

Internal martial practice is an important step to deepening and improving your kung fu.

In this video, Sifu Ted demonstrates and teaches a short exercise learned decades earlier from Sifu Wing Lam, for developing and incorporating intent into movement. Following the instruction is an interview with Ted, where he further elaborates on these concepts.



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This guy has a huge jaw! A damned big jaw. By far, the largest jaw I’ve ever seen.

At least, that’s what twirling around my brain as I face my sparring partner. Of course, the truth is that his jaw—in real life—is just average size; but in my imagination, his jaw has an appetite of its own.

There’s a well-known phenom that comes into play when conflict exists, whether you are sparring with an individual partner or dealing with a global virus. Some people call this “telescopic vision,” which is a pretty accurate description of the actual conflict between one’s eyesight and the “vision” or impression one thinks one sees.

Martial artists deal with “telescopic vision” in a unique way, and not just as a special skill. It can be truly frightening to see your opponent—or significant parts of him—enlarge while just standing there. But one can learn, with some practice, how to shift this vision from scary picture back to a reasonable, approachable image. Martial experts have developed stratagems over the centuries, battling not just their opponents but also their own vulnerabilities. Here are a few strategies, to encourage the ballooning picture to shrink a little. Continue reading

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Xingyi Sheltering

Practicing in isolation due to Shelter in Place orders has me reflecting on the time-honored tales of incarcerated Kung Fu masters. There is a story of when Xingyi Grandmaster Guo Yunshen (1829–1898 郭雲深) was imprisoned for accidentally killing an opponent in a duel. By some accounts, he was shackled in handcuffs and leg irons, limiting his ability to practice. He resolved to focus on a short Xingyi technique that his fetters would allow, a powerful basic attack called Beng Quan or crushing fist (崩拳). He allegedly used a half step to accommodate his leg shackles. After three years, he was sprung from jail, and in that time, he had mastered Beng Quan so consummately that he built his reputation on it. It was said that his “half-step Beng Quan could strike anyone under heaven (ban bu beng quan da yu tian xia 半步崩拳打天下).”

Grandmaster Guo’s tale inspired a Jet Li movie, his 2001 sleeper, The One. This was a Sci-Fi flick about multiple incarnations across multiple dimensions, casting Jet multiple roles setting him up to fight his ultimate opponent – himself. This Hollywood production that was panned by American critics, but for martial artists, The One worked on a deeper level. Jet’s evil incarnation, Gabriel Yulaw, used the linear attacking methods of Xingyi. Jet’s good incarnation, Gabe Law, deploys the circular strategies of Bagua. Xingyi and Bagua are the dominant soft styles of Chinese martial arts other than Tai Chi and they are frequently coupled together as complimentary practices. On May 1st, 2020, California posted an official non-exhaustive list of permitted outdoor recreational activities, including ‘Soft Martial Arts – Tai Chi, Chi Kung (not in groups)’. Xingyi and Bagua are both ‘soft’ too, so we’re good. Continue reading

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Reflections of a Changeling

As I sit in reflection over the last two months I am impressed by the power exchanged through change and adaptation.  Surfing during this time has also informed my impressions on these subjects.  Many of these lessons are also transferable to martial arts but I will let your imaginations fill the martial aspect as I respectfully leave that to my more senior practitioners.   

First, as noted by the length of existence and reverence of the I Ching, the study of change offers insight and power to those adept at aligning with the patterns of the changes of nature.  The I Ching is a tool of such study.  The Chinese zodiac reveals discernable cyclical patterns of change.  There are others.  Change often happens in pattern.  Change also directly correlates to movement.  There cannot be movement without change and there cannot be change without movement.  So both beget one another.  The universe sets forth the ultimate movement.  In my interpretation, it is our job as sentient beings (if we wish to thrive) to follow the discernable patterns of that change through our own aligned movement of mind, body and spirit in further alignment with the greater forces that surround and inform our lives. Continue reading

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Kung Fu Training: You Always Hurt the One You Love

Over my years of teaching martial arts, I’ve had quite a good time explaining some of the more obscure switches of Kung Fu’s winding pathway: the splits, front and side; gyrating and rolling children, long past their bedtimes; and the fine art of setting things on small altar stacks, then crushing them. And that is not even considering my favorite: the technique of slamming your own body with your own limbs. Seeing this for the first time may bring the reaction; “Boy, my teacher is so powerful he can hit himself and scare attackers off.”

The art of striking yourself is called “auto-impact” and is generally introduced after students are particularly skilled. The principle is to use your own body to augment its own power; it can also greatly enhance speed. To show how it works, let me take examples from the classical forms. Continue reading

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Shaolin sheltering: Weird Weapons

Among the first commandments for stifling COVID-19 is ‘do not touch your face’. This was extremely difficult for me. Spring is allergy season. It makes me cough and sneeze, and the last thing I want to be right now is a coughing sneezing Asian. What’s more, my nose is always itchy. To keep from scratching, I need one of those pet cones. The official term for those is ‘Elizabethan collars’ but I’ve called them ‘cones of shame’ in the wake of the movie Up (2009). The Chinese actually have such a thing. It’s called a cangue, a word derived from the old Portuguese canga meaning ‘yoke.’ It’s called jia (枷) in Mandarin. Used for prisoners, a cangue is a wide heavy wooden collar about a yard square like a flat Elizabethan collar for humans. If you are imprisoned in one, you cannot feed yourself or touch your face. It’s a torture. Just imagine the agony if you weren’t free to pick… I mean ‘scratch’… your nose because your neck was cuffed by a cangue-of-shame.

A legendary Kung Fu hero fought in a cangue – Wu Song (武松), a fictional character from the 14th century classic Outlaws of the Marsh. This epic has 108 heroes very loosely based on historical figures alongside fantasy ones, akin to British tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood. Among those 108, Wu Song stands out as one of the most beloved, in part because he was a drunken master and readers love irreverent boisterous drunks. He’s famous for killing a tiger after drinking 18 bowls of wine (the limit was 3 because it was especially strong, but no one had the courage to refuse Wu Song another round). If you see a Chinese painting of a bearded warrior pummeling a tiger, that’s Wu Song. There was also famous incident where Wu Song had to escape his captors who planned to murder him while he was restrained in a cangue. Continue reading

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The Simple Art of Breathing

This simple method of breathing works well for people practicing Chinese martial arts, Chinese medicine, meditation and what is commonly referred to as Qigong (Chi Kung). We call it simple, but it is also profound; as it relates the physical act of inhalation and exhalation with the mind’s intent, keeping a special focus on a most familiar activity. A little investment of time each day is all you need to start, and, unlike more rigorous approaches, this one will never hurt you. Try it!

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What Are We All Up to, Part 2

Thanks to Travis for sending us a small part of his daily training routine. We’d love to see yours, too….

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