A Story of Two Brothers: Appreciating the Meaning of “Kung Fu”

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I would like to share a story that I read before I started training in the martial arts. It was probably the single most influential item that helped me to appreciate the true meaning of the words, “kung fu” (achievement through work, over time) and to understand the three virtues that are necessary for any accomplishment: patience, perseverance and a strong will. It is from the book, “Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu” by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. To this day I have not forgotten its message. I hope it has some meaning for you.

During the early years of the Chin dynasty two brothers lived near Jeou Lien Mountain, Pu Zon Hsien of Fu Chien province. Ever since the time of their early youth the older brother, who was bigger and stronger, constantly oppressed the younger, weaker, brother. Rarely did a day pass which did not see the older brother intimidate the younger. This situation was especially made worse by the death of their father.

When the father died he split his land in half and gave an equal portion to each brother. But the older brother, not fearing the authority of his father anymore, decided to take away his weaker brother’s rightful inheritance. To take away anyone’s land was at that time a great tragedy because a person’s whole livelihood depended on the amount of land he had to cultivate. Everyday the older brother took a little land away from his brother; after a few months the younger brother found that he had no more land left. Utterly discouraged he was forced to move out.

For weeks the younger brother attempted to regain his land by bargaining, asking relatives to interfere, and seeking help from the authorities; all of the methods failed. Finally, the younger brother concluded that he had to build up his own body while learning martial arts. Only violence could force his brother to give back his inheritance. To achieve this, the younger brother traveled to the greatest of all martial schools – the Shaolin Temple. The younger brother did not have to go far because a division of the famous Shaolin Temple was located in Jeou Lien Mountain.

Upon entering the temple he sought the master of the Shaolin monks to ask for martial training. “Master,” he said humbly, “I have come to the Shaolin Temple to ask a great favor from you.”

“Ask and I shall attempt to honor your request,” replied the master.

“With your permission, I will gather water, plow the land, scrub the temple walls, and cook meals in the great kitchen if you will teach me martial arts.”

“But why do you wish to learn?”

“So I can get my rightful inheritance back from my brother. He has taken all the land my father left for me. I tried every peaceful path to get it back. Now, only violence is the answer.”

Without hesitation the master answered, “Yes.”

Word soon spread about the younger brother and his request. Many people who heard the story wondered at the reasoning of the master; some people could not believe that a Shaolin monk would teach someone martial arts with the intention of purposeful violence. But those who understood the ways and habits of the Shaolin monks knew that the younger brother would get a valuable lesson from his training.

To begin training the younger brother, the master found a small young willow tree and asked the brother to jump over the tree while holding a new born calf, which was given to the younger brother as a present by the master. The younger brother was commanded to do this task everyday, to jump over the same willow tree while holding the same calf. As time passed, the quick growing willow became taller and the calf grew bigger and heavier. After three years of this task, the younger brother was able to jump the tall willow with a cow in his hands.

After the third year, the younger brother soon became impatient with this task and went to see the master. “Master, for three years I have been jumping over the willow with the cow and I still haven’t learned the techniques of fighting. When will I begin to learn these things?”

The master, with a smile on his face, answered, “Young man, your training is now over. You now possess the ability to get back your rightful inheritance. Take the cow that you have been training with and go back to your land and start plowing it.”

“But,” the brother replied, “what will I do when my older brother comes to force me out?”

“Pick up the cow and run toward your brother,” answered the master.

The younger brother was utterly shocked by this statement. He pleaded with the master, but the master insisted he was now capable of his original goal. The younger brother left the Shaolin Temple very disappointed. But still, he decided to do what the monk advised. He was hoping that his brother had changed in the three years since his absence.

The younger brother soon arrived home and began immediately to plow the land with the cow with which he had practiced for three years. The older brother quickly appeared and said, “Brother, do you think that you can get your land back? Never! Now get off this land before I beat you.” The younger brother immediately picked up his cow and ran towards his brother. The older brother was so amazed and shocked at this feat that he ran away and never returned. The younger brother at last regained his rightful inheritance and more – his dignity and respect.

Imaginative stories like this one are often used to point out a moral which will teach the martial student the meaning of the Shaolin spirit. This story in particular tries to stress two major points. First, Kung Fu is meant only for self-defense – not for premeditated violence against others. The younger brother eventually got what he wanted without violence.

Second, the story points out that the learning of Kung Fu requires patience and constant repetition or practice. To spend three years to achieve proficiency in his technique the younger brother needed patience. Added to this was the need to constantly practice. But in showing the constant practice that the younger brother performed, the story also showed that progressive resistance is required. Over a period of time the student must have greater and greater resistance to overcome. Each day that the younger brother practiced, the height of the willow and the weight of the cow increased by a small amount. By slowly going to higher stages the younger brother achieved his goal.

“It does not matter how slowly you go,

so long as you do not stop.”


“The great thing, and the hard thing, is to stick to things when you have outlived the first interest, and not yet got the second, which comes with a sort of mastery.”

Janet Erskine Stuart

Originally published in March, 1999




Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.





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