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Eating Bitter in Internal Martial Arts by Tom Bisio

In Chinese Internal Martial Arts there is an oft-used expression, “Eating Bitter” (吃苦 Chi Ku). To “eat bitter” means to “bear hardship” – enduring something unpleasant, without complaint, while maintaining a positive attitude. In the context of martial arts, eating bitter refers to working hard and tolerating mental hardship, physical discomfort and pain in order to acquire skill and mastery.

Many Chinese teachers talk about the necessity of suffering difficulties in training. These difficulties are both mental and physical and often require unquestionably following the teacher’s instructions. On the surface, this sounds unpleasant, and even cruel, yet eating bitter lies at the very heart of kung fu training and culture. Eating Bitter is often portrayed in Gong Fu theatre. In classic Gong Fu movies, we watch the protagonist suffer seemingly cruel and pointless exercises under the guidance of his or her master only to later see that these training exercises lie at the heart of developing real skill in Gong Fu.

While movies exaggerate this aspect of Gong Fu training, in fact many Chinese teachers talk about the necessity of suffering difficulties in training. These difficulties are both mental and physical. Eating bitter may manifest as arduous, repetitive, and even painful training that takes one past one’s perceived limits of the body, mind and spirit, or it may take the form of simply showing up to train every day without fail early in the morning, no matter how cold or hot the temperature, and no matter whether you are sick or injured.

A common story in internal arts involves students holding a standing posture daily for three years before being allowed to learn anything else. While most of us love reading and even quoting these somewhat apocryphal stories, in reality, if asked to merely stand for three years we would probably quit training. Yet there is a truth to these stories. Anyone who has trained in Xing Yi Quan quickly learns that standing in San Ti Shi for periods up to an hour is par for the course. Standing in San Ti is hard, it is physically demanding, painful, and mentally arduous. Your mind tells you that you cannot do it, that it will damage you, that you are wasting your time and in the beginning it is the pressure of the teacher’s presence and the presence of other students that helps you to persevere and hold the posture uncomplaining for an hour. Later, you cannot rely on the presence of the teacher; you must force yourself to eat bitter and stand, no matter what your mind and body tell you, even when you are not sure if you are achieving anything at all.

My own experience with San Ti Shi is that for many years I could not hold the posture for more than 15 minutes. My senior school brother Song Shi Yong changed that in a day. He merely set the timer in his phone and told my wife and I that we were going to stand for an hour. He chatted with our friend and translator Huang Guo Qi while keeping an eye on us as we suffered through an hour of standing. Mentally and physically it was very difficult. We suffered an hour of standing every day for a week and the barrier was broken. This did not mean that subsequent standing over the next few years was easy. It did mean I could not longer come up with excuses for not standing. Standing remained hard for a long time and for at least a year it was hard to see if it was having any positive effect beyond training my intention. Now, years later, standing in San Ti Shi is something I actually look forward to and it has changed me and improved my skills in countless ways.

Often eating bitter involves endless, repetitive practice of Ji Ben Gong (fundamentals). I remember Leo Gaje, my first instructor in Filipino Martial Arts, leaving me to practice caching a heavy metal ball and triangle stepping footwork while he went off somewhere because he “had things to do.” I can’t say that I trained these things every minute he was gone, but I was so afraid that he would suddenly return and catch me not practicing that I kept doing the exercises more or less continuously for 2 hours. When he returned and saw me training, he nodded his approval and he then taught me something new.

There are numerous manifestations of eating bitter. For example, training for years and believing you have achieved real skill – only to have your teacher tell you your foundation is weak and you need to spend a year or more relearning the most fundamental basics. There is the “eating bitter” of being humbled by sparring or pushing hands with a superior opponent and realizing once again that you did not practice the basics enough; and there is the physical pain of training applications like throws and joint locks.

In the beginning, we often need a teacher to push us, to “make us” eat bitter. Traditionally in China when the teacher asks you to do something, you “do it” without question. This has its own multi-faceted aspects. Partly you don’t want to disappoint your teacher. You want to be taken seriously and not dismissed as a dilettante. Partly you must believe that the teacher has your best interests at heart. Partly you have your own expectations of yourself to live up to, and partly the peer pressure of the other students training alongside you without complaining keeps you going.

In the end you cannot rely on the teacher, the other students, or the situation to drive you to eat bitter. We force ourselves to eat bitter because we come to realize that without the bitter, there can be no sweet. Without testing ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually there can be no real achievement, no real Gong Fu.