I haven’t given the question much thought in a while since I had already long since decided to focus on ILC. But now that I teach as well as study the art, it is a question I have to answer with some regularity. After I was recently asked about the specific distinguishing characteristics of ILC, I finally sat down and revisited the question.
I-Liq Chuan is a modern “traditional” martial art. Technically, in a “traditional” martial art (in the original incarnation of the nomer), the full system is only passed on to a few select insiders. These insiders are typically family members of the master, or potentially a select few disciples who the master happens to like and made honorary family members. Some inner door secrets are withheld from the general population.
This model makes no sense in the modern world, which is why I use quotes around “traditional” when describing ILC. It is still “traditional” in the sense that it is a family art still taught by the Chin family, but it is “modern” in the sense that the antiquated obfuscation of skills has been sensibly done away with. People do not depend on martial arts for survival as they once may have in the past, and firearms make secrets irrelevant. The complete ILC system is taught openly. The only reason something is hidden is because the practitioner has insufficient understanding to grasp the concepts and thus fails to see the significance of what is being taught in plain sight.
Modernized teaching approach and standardized curriculum
Traditional “old school” kung fu training has a reputation for involving countless hours of grueling physical training, long periods of contemplating cryptic words of wisdom from past masters, and daily personalized one-on-one instruction from the master. This model of skill transmission is woefully ill-suited for life in the modern world. Few people have the time or means to devote that much effort to training. Personalized instruction based on each individual student scales poorly to teaching enough students to ensure that the art survives. In addition, personalized instruction ensures that everyone comes away with different pieces of the art. The art then fractures from the numerous interpretations between the students arising from their different instruction.
Today’s world requires an organized, systematic approach to gong fu training so that training is smarter rather than just harder (though you still have to train hard if you wish to achieve proficiency!). In I-Liq Chuan, training is structured by the curriculum. Once the curriculum structure is understood, the practitioner has a clearly laid plan for how to approach training and to develop skill. The student can see how to make progress and establish training goals to keep improving. Since everyone follows the same plan of learning, it is easier to ensure that all the students learn the complete art rather than receiving bits and pieces from haphazard personalized training.
Like any specialized field, the terminology is standardized. The vocabulary used to describe principles in the art have descriptive rather than poetic names, and each term has a specific meaning. Having a specific “jargon” minimizes misunderstandings from people using different terms with different meanings and interpretations. This ensures that practitioners can converse effectively and have meaningful discussions which lead to improved understanding.
Perhaps most importantly, the standardization of the system equips students with tools to allow progress even if interaction with the master is infrequent. If passing down the art requires constant feedback from the master as it would be in the true traditional model, then personal instruction with the master becomes a significant rate-limiting step for knowledge transmission; in this model, only a select few will ever have the opportunity to truly learn the art. On the other hand, when the art is systematized, it is feasible to follow the curriculum and make progress independent of the master.
Principles based system
There are no set techniques in I-Liq Chuan. Sure, there are the two forms (21 Form and Butterfly form), 15 basic exercises, and partner training progressions. But those are training tools. They in and of themselves do not define the art. What defines whether the practice is correct is not how the movements look, but rather if the movements conform to principles. Two practitioners can perform movements stylistically different, but both can be expressing the art correctly by conforming to the principles. Alternatively, two people can be performing the exact same movements, but one person can perform the movements with full attention to unifying to and flowing with a point of contact; the other can merely repeat the sequence of movements. In this case, only the first person is expressing the art. The art is only present if the principles back up the movements, whatever those movements happen to be.
The principles laid out in the curriculum define both the conceptual framework of the system and provide the means to assess progress. In order to make improvements, you must have a sense of what you are trying to improve, a plan of action, and a feedback mechanism to measure progress. That is what having a clearly laid out system gives you. The principles give you direction as to why and what you should be training. The curriculum provides a plan of action. Finally, by checking how well you are conforming to the principles in solo and partner practice, you have a method for assessing your progress.
In I-Liq Chuan, mindfulness is foundational to the art. Mental training is just as important as physical training; to achieve higher levels of skill, it is perhaps even more important. With most skills (including general physical and athletic endeavors), the limitation to improvement at the higher levels is not usually physical. Rather, mental concentration is the limitation. Masters of any art train with great mental focus; the full attention of the mind is necessary to perceive and train the fine points that separate the skilled practitioners from the novices.
I-Liq Chuan is infused with Zen philosophy. Training the mind to be fully present is essential to the learning process and to applying the art. In order to harmonize and flow with an opponent, the mind must be fully present to perceive the conditions of the moment. Without seeing the conditions of the moment, your actions are based on guessing and anticipation, which may not correspond to what is actually happening. During the learning process, mindfulness training is required to see the essence of the skill to go beyond performing a mimicked or reflexive movement. Frequently, what holds us back from progressing is that we hold on to habits and preconceptions that block us from perceiving clearly. Mindfulness training forces us to delve into the mind and remove the mental blocks that hinder mental clarity and hold us back from achieving higher levels of understanding.
The process of learning to be present involves learning to pay attention to the senses. The senses are our gateways to the world; they are the means by which we gather information about our environment. The simple act of paying attention can dramatically alter how we experience reality. In a world of constant distraction, it is easy to forget how to listen to our senses and experience the moment. Part of the training is simply reconnecting the mind to our physical sensors.
Attention to the feel of the body (i.e. proprioception and body awareness) is essential for developing the movement skills and martial aspects of the art. The practitioner must be able to feel the relationship between all parts of the body to manifest precise coordination, efficient movement, balance, structural alignment, and adaptive movement ability. Mindful movement practice develops an acute awareness of the body and strengthens the link between mind and body; the unification of the mind and body lays the foundation for natural movement and relaxed power.
This description is by no means a comprehensive answer to why someone would want to train ILC. It’s also a little biased towards the things I see as the significant characteristics of the art. There are plenty of other reasons to train ILC: the health benefits of movement practice, calm mind from the meditative training, heightened awareness, postural improvement, better mental focus, etc. The art has plenty to offer for those willing to delve into it