The Root of Martial Art

Have you ever watched a movie or movies and said, “Wow, how did they pull that off?” Please say yes, other wise I know you’re lying. I’m sure we have all seen a martial art movie where they do some of the craziest stunts, and like all of you, I just stared at the screen and wondered what on earth did I just see. And then you felt the need to share that experience with your friends and family, and you got them to watch the movie(s), and they liked it and showed it to their friends and family and they liked it and showed it to their friends and family and that must be how martial art was spread internationally, right? Well, no. That’s not how martial art grow, that’s how Hollywood grow. You see, we talk about cool things everyday, martial art for example. But very few of us actually know what we’re talking about. Sure, we can make comments about how awesome Ip man or Kill Bill, or even The Matrix was, but how can we fully appreciate something without knowing exactly what it is or where it came from. Don’t worry because I am here to give you the information you need, so next time when you talk about martial art, you know what are you talking about. I’m sorry, that was rude, but let’s talk martial art, shall we? Or should I say, Shaolin Kempo.


My name is Phong Le. My family and I migrated to the US from Vietnam in 2012. I am currently a student from Central High School, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ever since I was a kid I have always been a big fan of kung fu without knowing it. Think of it like dragons, or dinosaurs, things that would keep a little kid staring at the TV for hours. As I grow up, I got more intrigued. I want to know more about the things that I love. Dragons are myth so we can get that out of the way. Dinosaurs existed sixty five million years ago and were wiped out by a meteor. But martial art is something else entirely. One of the thing I’ve learned is that you can’t touch martial art, you can’t see martial art, but you can experience it.

I was quite reluctant picking martial art as my ethnography topic because I expected the participants to be mean looking, kind of cocky and the last thing I want is to say the wrong thing to someone who, if they want, can break every single bone in my body in minutes. And boy was I wrong. About the mean looking part of course, not the bones breaking part, that part is one hundred percent true. With the hope of digging deeper into the birth of martial art, I came to The Running Tiger Academy where they teach Shaolin Kempo. There I met a man named Joseph, my cultural broker, and things got interesting.


First of all, let just get it out of the way, Bruce Lee did not invent martial art. I idolize Bruce Lee ever since the day I was born, but no he is not the founder of martial art. He made it popular sure, but there were a lot of great martial artists that came before him. Unfortunately, none of them made it to Hollywood like Lee did. If you’ve seen the Ip man trilogy, you’d know that I’m telling the truth.

In this essay, I want to focus on Shaolin Kempo, or sometimes called Kenpo, arguably the oldest type of martial art. And to do that I’m going to have to take you back to the ancient China.

In 520 BC, a man named Bodhidharma entered China and traveled northward to the kingdom of Wei where the fabled meeting with emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty began. There, they had a rather intense discussion about Buddhism and dhyana. The meeting came to no result, forced Bodhidharma to leave the palace and travelled to the Honan province where we entered the Shaolin temple and began a martial history. In the temple, he learned to deal with his personal problems by meditating. But during that time, Bodhidharma was also seeing for a way to renew the feat of Buddha’s light, as well as letting the monks regain control over their lives. He taught them the art of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho, or the 18 hands of Lo Han. These techniques are the critical foundation for almost all modern martial arts, and interestingly, they were never created as a method of fighting. They were a manner in which the monks could attain enlightenment while preserving their bodies health. Think of it as yoga, or tai chi. I guess it’s safe to say that we have gotten more violence over the years.

About forty years after the death of Bodhidharma, the Shaolin Temple was attacked by brigands. The monks tried to use their skills to fight back, but it showed little to no effect. A monk of the temple, with reference only as the “begging monk”, during the last siege of the temple by the brigands attacked several of the outlaws with an array of aggressive hand and foot techniques, killing some and driving the remaining attackers away. The other monks were so inspired by the display of this single priest that they requested tutelage in this martial style (later known as the Chuan Fa) as a means of protection. Trust me, I had the same reaction. And there I thought things like that could only exist in movies.

Chuan Fa was still practiced in China over the next several centuries, but its teaching also found its way to Okinawan Islands and the Ryukyu kingdom as well as Japan. In both places, the art was referred to as Kempo or Law of the fist. Using the Buddhist teaching at various temples along with the popularity of Chuan Fa at the time, the monks has successfully translated the art of Chuan Fa into Kempo. From there the art of Kempo could easily spread among the commoners and nobles alike.

There were also myths of people who travelled from Japan to China to learn the fabled art of Chuan Fa. They would disappear for many years, presumed dead by many, only to resurface as a master of Kempo and other martial arts. Maybe on their journey through the jungle, they met Yoda. That’s my theory but let’s just assume that’s not true.

A lot of people has had a significant impact on bringing Shaolin Kempo to the modern world. But William Chow is perhaps responsible for the largest leap.

William Chow(July 3, 1914–September 21, 1987) studied several types of martial arts as a young man. He is well known for his devastating breaking techniques. Chow is considered by many as the father of American Kenpo. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is responsible for the wide spread of martial art in the new world.

Nick Cerio, Chow’s former student, described his instruction style and I quote, “I got banged here and there with the old man, but not in a malicious way, Chow was tough and gave you a good strong workout. He was adamant about physical conditioning and when he did a technique, he meant business. I believe he didn’t have the intention of hurting you. It was just that he was so powerful and quick that he didn’t realize himself how much damage he did when he demonstrated a technique on you.”

After Chow’s death, many of his students carried on his legacy. They became martial art instructors, and every single one of them added something new to Kenpo. The most famous has to be Edmund Parker. From there, Kempo and its many other forms take some twists and turns, evolved over many decades into new states.

The Observation

March 12th, 2016

It was my first observation. I left the house at nine in the morning without eating breakfast. It was snowing lightly, and the sun was hardly visible. The class doesn’t start until 9:30 but I wanted to be there early.

When I got there, it was only 9:10. I walked in and was noticed almost instantly by everyone. They are old. Not too old, but still a lot older than I expected. They were putting on their uniforms and gears, meanwhile I was greeted by Dana. I spoke to her on the phone a couple of weeks ago to set up this observation. Dana was very nice to me. She showed me the red couch on the right corner of the building. I took off my shoes and went to sit on the couch.

As I get ready to take some notes, with a pencil and a notebook in my hands, I was joined by Matt. If this is a screenplay for a horror/thriller kind of movie, then Matt is the killer. But since it’s not, Matt was just someone I talked to. He’s a tall Caucasian man, I’m guessing around his mid forty and he was very sweaty. I assumed he was a fitness kickboxing participant, but he wasn’t wearing any kickboxing gear, he was wearing the Shaolin Kempo uniform. But how could he be that sweaty if there was no class before the one I was about to observe?

Matt was a really nice person as it turned out. He sat down next to me and asked what I was doing. I told him I was writing a paper for school. We chatted a little about martial art as the instructor, Joseph, entered the room. The group gathered around and they bowed to their “teacher” and each other. Then they all got down on their knees and recited a very interesting paragraph. I didn’t catch what they said at first so I asked Matt. He told me that before every session, to honor the history of Kempo, they all have to kneel down and say, “I come to you with only Shaolin Kempo. I have no weapons. And should I be forced to defend myself, my principles, or my honor, whether only a matter of life or death, right or wrong. Here are my weapons, Shaolin Kempo.”

“They have to say that everyday?” I asked. “Yes” Matt answered. At this point, I was convinced that Matt was a participant, because how would anyone know all that. So I jumped to my first interview question, “Is it safe to say that all martial arts are defensive?” He nodded and said, “Almost all martial arts are defensive.” Before I could continue, Matt stood up as the instructor approached us. “If you want to know more about it, you can always ask Joseph here. Hey Joseph, how are you?” said Matt. They shook hands and Matt put on a jacket that had a logo that said 5 Witness News on it. So, does he work for the news? Is he a journalist? Is he an ethnographer like me? Well, technically I’m a student but, who is Matt? After that, he shook my hand and left.

So Joseph sat down next to me and we started talking. He asked what I was doing, so I answered that I was doing an observation.

“That’s really cool!”, said Joseph.

“Thank you. Sir, do you mind if I ask you a few question?’’

“Of course!”

“Is it safe to say that all martial arts are defensive?” I asked him the same question I asked Matt.

“Almost all martial arts are defensive.” He gave me same answer Matt did, word by word, exclusively in that order.

Shaolin Kempo is a striking art, which requires its participants to know how to generate the maximum amount of power. Sounds ideal for offensive right? But when you think about it, when you’re defending yourselves, you want the fight to end as quick as possible. So you either run like Mayweather or take out your opponent(s) in a minimal time like Pacquiao… and then run like Mayweather.

I also asked him about the belt color. For most martial arts, you always start with white belt. The highest level is of course the black belt. For some people, it might take a little longer to reach the next levels. According to Joseph, it depends on how fast you can learn and how good is your memory. I wonder how long did it take for Joseph? I should have asked him that.

After that short conversation, he went back to work with his students. He asked me to stay after the class to do an interview. It should have been me asking that question. At this point, I’m not sure if Joseph is a really friendly person or am I a bad ethnographer.

I took my time to observe the place, and to be honest it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. A confined studio that looks similar to your high school gym, maybe a little smaller. There is a bathroom in the back of the room. On the left is a door that leads to the fitness kickboxing class, which I wasn’t allowed to enter for some reason. On my right is a table for everyone to put their stuff, and it’s also the place where everyone gather during water break.

It’s also divided into three parts, as you can see in the pictures above. On the far left corner is for the white belts, or greenie. I find it quite strange that they call the white belts greenie, regardless of the fact that they also have green belts. I understand that we live in a world where everything have more than one name now, but white belt and greenie… You know what, I’m just going to leave it alone. By the way, isn’t that like a thing from the Maze Runner books?

Joseph and I had a small conversation about the belt colors. He said the white color represents the clean but immature feeling of a “greenie”. And as they continue to train, the belts get more and more dirty. He said Shaolin Kempo participants don’t wash their belts, because it reminds them of their blood and sweat, their sacrifices. The belt changes color over the years until it turns completely black. Personally, I thought that was really cool.

And you can see it in their training as well. While the white belts were practicing the basic techniques like how to punch and kick, the brown, green and black belts were in an intense training. It’s a series of combinations that would take a human being years to perfect.

The different trainings for different belt colors.
Joseph gives his instructions
Brown belt
Black belt

Joseph has his black belt students teach the white belts. Why you ask? He told me that he wants to know if his teaching methods are working. He wants to make sure his students understand Shaolin Kempo the way he does. By letting the students be the teachers, it allows them to reflect on their process as a martial artist. “I believe that it’s not your fault that you’re bad at something, it’s your instructor’s fault.” Joseph said to me.

I sat there until eleven when the class was over. There is this ritual they do before everyone can go home.

Joseph went into a room for about five minutes, then came out and sat down next to me, told me he is ready for the interview. I did not write down his answers word by word nor record it, so I’m going to give you the best, paraphrased version of them.


“What got you into martial art?”

Turned out, Joseph used to serve in the military. He was a marine. He told me he’s been in a few war and saw his friends died right in front of him. He came home looking for something different and martial art offered him an escape.

“What is your ideal practicing environment?”

He likes to practice martial art outside. He said when we allow ourselves to connect with nature, there we can find peace. Again, not a direct quote.

“On a scale of one to ten, how accurate does the media portray martial art?”

He couldn’t think of a number, but he said it’s not very accurate. In an action movie, a hero can get into a fight with ten guys and fight them for an unrealistically long period of time. Fighting for ten minutes is exhausting. He also told me about martial artists he idolize. They are Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Tony Jaa.

“Aside from self defense, what has martial art taught you?”

The answer is balance. He said after coming home from the army, his life wasn’t the same. Practicing Kenpo helped him find that balance.

“During a fight, what is your goal?”

If you’re a martial artist, you always try to avoid fighting. Before things turn ugly, your initial goal is to deescalate the situation. It’s almost impossible, but you always try to talk your opponent out of it. Run away would be the best decision. But if the fight is unavoidable, that’s where you become a total badass. Bone breaking techniques are preferred because it ends the fight the quickest. And if there is no other option, you will have to kill your opponent(s).

“I’m sorry what?”

“We teach them techniques to kill when and only when it’s the only option.”

I was in shock. I wanted to ask a few more questions, but I decided to save them for next week. I thanked Joseph and left. That was my first observation and it was remarkable.

March 19th, 2016

It was snowing quite heavily. The temperature was around thirty degree Fahrenheit. Because of the cold weather, it took me longer to get there. I was a little late that day. Class was already started so I tried to be as quiet as possible. Ironically, they were really loud.

I saw Matt, but he was about to leave. He recognized me. We shook hands and Matt left the studio. He wore that same 5 Witness News jacket.

There was one thing I noticed during this observation. I noticed how much fun they are having. And before I could say anything, Joseph came to the couch, sat down next to me and said, “See how much fun they’re having? That’s my goal. I want them to feel relaxed practicing martial art.” He told me that this joyful atmosphere is rare in martial art studios. Mostly, you could feel the intensity in the room. But not here, at the Running Tiger Academy, you get to have as much fun as you can .

“The one thing that I love about Shaolin Kempo is that it’s for everyone. Black, white, Mexican, Asian,… fat, thin,… even if you’re on a wheelchair. It’s all about the flow and as an instructor, my job is to create flows that fit everybody. Everyone can practice Shaolin Kempo.” Joseph turned out to be an immigrant like me. We had a brief conversation about our journey to America. “What’s going on in politics these day?” he asked me. “Donald Trump.” I answered. We spent five minutes discussing Donald Trump, and how much we hate that guy. By the way, at this point of the paper, if you happen to be a Trump supporter, you can stop reading now. You’re welcome!

I remember watching movies where the protagonist have the ability to detect an attack from behind. And no, I’m not talking Spider Man. I’m talking about action movies that feel realistic and grounded. I asked Joseph if that’s possible and he gave me a fantastic answer. He said that us humans are very similar to the wild animals. But instead of listening to each other talk or feel the wind going through your skin, we listen to music with headphones, we’re bombarded with cellphones ringing, car engines,… We tend to shut down our senses. By practicing martial art, especially when you do it outside, it helps you redevelop those senses, reconnect with nature and be more aware of your surroundings.


One last reminder that these answers are paraphrased.

“What role does science play if any?”

It plays quite a big role in martial art. You need to have a good understanding of the human body like how the blood flow. There are also other important elements like psychology, gravitational pull, and environmental science.

“I noticed how you guys use your hands for upper body attack and legs for lower body attack. Is there a reason for that?”

Going back to the idea of ending the fight quickly, you want to do something simple, easy and generates the most power. A flying spinning kick is cool and all, but is it really that necessary? To perform a perfect flying kick, it would require a lot of energy. And the last thing you want to do in a fight is wasting your energy.

March 26th, 2016

I remember how nice the weather actually was. It was about forty degree outside. That’s really nice in Minnesota during March. It was my last observation and interview.

I walked in and everyone was getting ready. Dana and Joseph greeted me. Matt wasn’t there. I repeat, Matt wasn’t there.

So I sat down and took some photos. I recorded the class practicing some kind of pair exercise.

There isn’t much I can say about that day. It wasn’t so different from the last two, except for one thing. I tried something new that day, it’s called voice memos. In the end of the day, I asked Joseph if I can record his voice. He said yes.


I gathered my stuff. I put on my shoes and ready to leave. Joseph came up to me and asked, “If you’re thinking about signing up for a class, you can always let me know.” If he asked me this on my first day I would have probably said no. But now, after three observations and three interviews, I’ve gotta be honest I am thinking about it. “I’ll think about it.” I answered him.

“It’s been a pleasure, sir.”

“Of course. Have a good day young man. See you around.”

“Thank you. Have a good day.”

I walked out of the Running Tiger Academy and went home. On my way home, I saw all this people living their lives. I looked at their faces and saw their stories. I wanted walk up to them and tell them to sign up for a Shaolin Kempo class, now that I know its purpose. I actually thought about doing it, but didn’t for obvious reasons.

I went home that day and sat down on my chair. I felt satisfied and proud of the work I’ve done with Joseph. This experience allowed me to revisit my childhood and somehow turned it into something more mature, and now that I’m eighteen, I need that maturity in my life.


My hope is that after reading this paper, you have a better understanding of martial art. Like I said, you can’t fully appreciate something without having the necessary knowledge. To be honest, I don’t think there is anything wrong with viewing martial art as what the media is portraying it, entertainment. But these people, people like William Chow or even Joseph, they deserve your attention. They deserve your respect. They deserve more.

“You know these people have had punches thrown at them. And with the mentality that you can’t protect yourself, it’s tough to walk around these neighborhoods. They came to my class seeking help, and the best I can do is to help them regain their confidence.” Joseph said that to me on my first day. This quote is going to stay with me for a long time.

When I was kid, I’ve always wanted to learn kung fu to beat up bad guys, to be like my heroes. But not until that day when I realized I was nothing but a naive and ignorant kid. I walked into that room and a whole new world exploded right in front of me. These people, they are not here to be Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or Batman. They’re here to find themselves again and that’s something not a lot of us know.

I had the privilege to come to the Running Tiger Academy and they really showed me the true meaning of martial art, and I hope my ethnography did the same thing for you all.


American Kenpo. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2016, from

New Page. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2016, from

Kempo History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2016, from

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