Canadian Headquarters: Gloucester Traditional Karate Association

The Morality of Kung-Fu: An Interview with a Master

Conducted by Mathieu G. Ravignat

Editorial Comments:

Interview with Master Kiem Hou-Lee (Li Jian-Hua) on the ethical principles of the traditional Chinese martial-arts was held on February 20th 2000 (Year of the Metal Dragon) at Notley Martial Arts which is a member school of the All American Meibukan Karate-do Association (Canadian Branch) where Sifu Kiem teaches a small number of dedicated students three times a week. A similar interview had been conducted four years ago but had, to the great frustration of the author, been lost on a 286 hard drive. Other than a few impromptu questions, the questions have not changed. The language has deliberately not been cleaned up to ensure that the flavour of the interview is retained. At times, Hing Poon Chan translated, and, at other times, Sifu spoke directly to me in English. His English, though much better than a couple of years ago, is still unpolished, whereas Hing Poon Chan's is very good, which accounts for the differing styles throughout the interview. Clarification by the author are in brackets (..).


MGR: Sifu, could you please identify yourself.

KHL: My name is Li Jian-Hua and I was born in North Vietnam from Chinese parents and lived in Hanoi. My age is not important. I started training when I was about eleven. But not really, just followed the others, for real fighting, I start in my early teens.

MGR: Could you tell us about your family?

KHL: My father was a journalist, my mother a teacher, my grandfather was a herbalist, a Chinese classics teacher, Confucian style. He taught at a school.

MGR: Please Sifu, could you tell us why and how you started Kung Fu?

KHL: I was small and sick, so I was beat up a lot. I started training with a friend of a neighbour of my parents and with a school teacher.

MGR: What style did you start with and what other styles have you learnt in your martial arts career?

KHL: I start in Tai Chi, the Chen style, and Shaolin, then I trained in China after and before the cultural revolution mostly in Guanxi province. Shaolin and Emei styles and Ba ji and Chi-Kung and Hsing-Yi. After the cultural revolution I lost contact with my masters in China. I don't know where they are but after the cultural revolution I found out that some were dead. No one knows where my masters have gone. I still have contact with my master in Vietnam (a Shaolin master). My student Ching has visited him two times. He is very old.

MGR: Could you tell us how the training was like when you started?

KHL: Very hard, very strict, everything had to be good, the tradition must be kept strong.

MGR: Could you tell us a little bit about how, at that time, students could come to be accepted by masters?

KHL: Sometimes you can ask a teacher to be a student and he says no, for no reason and you don't know why. Sometimes a teacher would say yes without even asking him. It is fate. If you go find a teacher you will never find one. Sometimes they accept you but not really teach you. A Kung-Fu teacher observes character first. They have a method to know your character and see if they can trust it, maybe they can't, depends. Before they teach you, they have to know if you have endurance, if you are a good person.

MGR: Impromptu question: How long could it take, up to five years?

KHL: No. Many ways to do this, no time frame to be accepted, depends

on the student. Chinese Kung-Fu is to kill and control people with. If it is taught to somebody who does something wrong it is the Kung-Fu instructors fault and responsibility because the bad students can do harm to society. That's what Chinese Kung-Fu is all about.

HPC: This is why many people have tried to destroy traditional Kung-Fu, so they don't have to worry about it.

KHL: Yes that's true, they do the health part and the demonstration part, but the fighting method is not too developed. But it is not true that this method is disappearing. Privately in China they are preserving it secretly, especially in remote areas. People say that Kung-Fu will be extinguished, but that's not true, most teachers, when they are older will actively find a replacement. This is good because the teacher is quite experienced and his teaching method has improved, and so the accepted students do not go out blindly, but are given the straight path. Student don't have to be older, or be for long time. He must find someone with potential, patience, endurance and above all, perseverance. Someone who wants to learn is open (honest, sincere, says what's on his mind, clean slated). But he must have natural ability and potential (talent). Also, most of the real Kung-Fu masters learn the biology (TCM), he must learn that too.

MGR: Could you describe the traditional student-teacher relationship?

KHL: The concept of Sifu is that of a teacher and a father, not just a teacher. He must look after you until you mature, a concept that many westerners don't have understanding. Don't talk back to your Sifu, you can ask a question but don't talk bad. Sifu must be very strict, must have discipline in his daily life. Anytime you were wrong he hit you.

MGR: What is the responsibility of a Sifu to his students, and vice versa?

KHL: Like Confucius said: "If the son is not a good person, it is the father's fault, if his knowledge is applied wrongly, it is the teacher's fault." Teacher must not be lazy. He must teach straight, clear, and disciplined. As a Chinese saying goes: If the jade is not carved it is just a rock, worthless. The carving is the teaching. A student must have absolute respect and understand why the teacher is so strict. It is so that you can become somebody. The student must endure. When you drink water, you think about where the water comes from, right? It is the same thing, the student must possess the 9 basic precepts of the Confucian tradition these are: loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, a love of justice, courtesy, a thirst for wisdom, sincerity, purity and honor (see appended Chinese characters).

MGR: Impromptu question: Is this respect absolute obedience, what is the difference, Sifu, between obedience and respect?

KHL: They are very different, respect is a certain kind of obedience, respect is more negotiable. Obedience is blind. Obedience is to follow commands, respect you retain your mind (conscience) and opinion.

MGR: Impromptu question: What is the difference between a warrior and a soldier?

KHL: A warrior is like a volunteer, a militia man. A soldier is a professional he is paid like a mercenary or a soldier in the armed forces.

MGR: Impromptu question: Which is more virtuous?

KHL: It all depends on the training and who uses the tool, the tool is not bad, a knife or a gun is just a piece of steel - it is the persons mind which is important.

MGR: Sifu, what according to you is the spiritual goal of the Chinese martial arts?

KHL: In general North-America, kung-fu teachers don't put any emphasis on the spiritual level. The martial arts are a very deep philosophy. People who learn here just learn the appearance, but don't understand the spiritual part. In general, if a teacher is at a high level, he is pretty confident if he can beat somebody up or not, so what's the point. He doesn't necessarily have to cross hands with you. He just needs to talk to you and he will know, this is a kind of spiritual power. Many here in North America have strong power, but they just have the outside shell, in a real life and death situation they would not know what to do. Also, they like the martial arts, but when they have to work hard, they can't do it. But, the real part is not the external part but the internal spiritual part. Real martial arts emphasise the mind and the will (Yi). Not like here with no balance, like a fast food restaurant, or like a business, you have your black belt in one year. That's no good. Therefore, the teachers greatest responsibility is to make sure that the student has a balance between the physical and spiritual parts.

MGR: Sifu, could you please tell us what, spiritual, philosophical and ethical systems have influenced the martial arts ?

KHL: Depends when, in which dynasty. But most of the big ethical systems in Asia affected the martial arts including: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

MGR: Could you please tell us which you adhere to and why?

KHL: In my opinion, the internal for the forms, they are more natural. But Buddhism for the philosophy. It is more satisfying. I read lots of religion books and Buddhism is the most deep. But, even in Buddhism, there are many differences in deepness levels. Zen (Chan) is very deep.

MGR: Impromptu question: What do you think of Christianity?

KHL: This is only my opinion. The theory and principles are very good. But it is not satisfying to me. Christians try to attract people by missions, want people to go to church, but Buddhism doesn't actively seek. The door is wide open one can leave at any time, it is not fixed. The methods are different, not necessarily one better than the other, just different. Don't know enough too.

MGR: Impromptu question: What do you think is wrong with the west?

KHL: The west lacks balance between spiritualism and materialism. Individualism is good, however the kids have to do it the hard way all the time. Kids need more guidance. Oriental kids are not as good as the western kids in taking care of themselves and they depend on the family too much... maybe. But the western kids can't rely on the family enough. There are pros and cons to both approaches. The oriental approach is too much, but the pro is that they don't often risk hitting a wall. Whereas the westerners can defend themselves (succeed in life) but are prone to be influenced by their friends too much and not enough by family. They hit a wall if they are influenced by the wrong people. Also, in the 60's and the hippie movement, women wanted more liberalization, and that's good. But some people take advantage of women and kids take no responsibility anymore. It is more about satisfying themselves and they don't care about the girl. But who fixes the mess. The west misses religion and has no balance. When you lack the spiritual part, or a good family, who do you speak to, just your friends, but they are the same age as you. They need to know what is right and wrong. There is just no balance.

MGR: Impromptu question: Should a martial artist be a patriot?

KHL: Yes! Very much so, if he understands real Kung-Fu he should pay attention to his training and not be afraid to die for his country. But at the same time, a martial artist should have no race or country. The greatest duty of a martial artist is simply to train the next generation of martial artists into good people. This is an important contribution to the country and to humanity. That is real patriotism. In the west, people take the martial arts to defend themselves, it is always about them, about yourself, they think for themselves first, but, if you think about doing something for your country, that is a different way of thinking, right?

MGR: What kind of a life do you think a master should lead and why?

KHL: Hard on yourself, soft on others. Or like they say now in the west square inside, circle on the outside.

MGR: Any last comments?

KHL: People who are interested in Kung-Fu, you should understand the spiritual part. You must persevere. Teachers, take you responsibilities seriously, you must give your students self-confidence. If they don't have self-confidence and a balance between the physical and the spiritual, they can't be good people. In life you need to have a goal and the discipline to do it, and by your adolescence you should have a goal. At 20, you should be working for that goal, by 30-35, you should be settled, between 50-60, you should take care of your family. Your family and nation must be able to rely on you.


Master Kiem Hoo Lee (Li Jian-Hua), identified as KHL (Interviewee): Master Lee is a Chinese national who immigrated to Canada, from Vietnam, where he began the Chinese martial arts at an early age. He has approximately 35 years experience in the Chinese martial arts as varied as, Shaolin, Hsing-I, Tai-chi, Chi-Kung and Ba-Ji. Founder of the Ottawa Chinese Martial Arts and Chi-Kung Academy, he has been teaching in Ottawa, Canada since the early 80's.

Sensei Hing Poon Chan, identified as HPC (Interpreter): Mr. Chan is the Canadian representative of the All American Okinawa Meibukan Gojyu Ryu Karate Association, under the guidance of Anthony Marakian, American Karate pioneer. Sensei Chan has more than 30 years of experience in the martial arts and is the founder and head instructor of the Gloucester Traditional Karate Association founded in 1985, also located in Ottawa, Canada.

Mathieu G. Ravignat B.A. Soc. Sc. MA. Pol. Phi. identified as MGR (Interviewer): Mathieu Ravignat has over fourteen years experience in the Chinese martial arts of Northern and Southern Shaolin Kung- Fu. He is currently the head instructor of the University of Ottawa Stone Lion Kung-Fu School, founded in 1993. Mathieu is one of Master Lee's students and is also one of Sensei Chan's senior Meibukan Gojyu Ryu students.

Last updated:

TM Denotes the trademark of Anthony Mirakian of 151 Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown, MA 02155 USA, used under license by Hing-Poon Chan.