Odi is a modern-day kung-fu master. Over the past two decades, he has mastered virtually every melee weapon under the sun and coached countless students to victory in national wushu competitions around Indonesia.
Indonesia recently won five medals, including the gold, in the Asian Games wushu competition, so we thought it was a good time to reach out to Odi to talk about the past, present, and future of kung-fu in a world obsessed with mixed-martial arts.
VICE: How long have you been practicing kung-fu?
Odi: I’ve been teaching kung-fu since ’96. I’ve also trained in other martial arts like pencak silat and Brazillian ju-jitsu, but the one that I’ve studied most is kung-fu.
What’s the difference between traditional kung-fu and wushu? Is it true that kung-fu has basically been reduced to dancing and its more flowery forms today?
In my opinion, wushu prioritizes beauty over function. Wushu’s speed is amazing—but the martial soul of the art is almost nonexistent because the movements are focused on style rather than substance. On the other hand, traditional kung-fu preserves the martial aspect through proper form and conditioning. Wushu has two branches: taolu, which are rehearsed forms, and sanda, which is a combat sport. So you could say that sanda is wushu’s answer to taolu.
What’s the most misunderstood thing about kung-fu?
The regular person thinks that wushu is just “dancing” and that kung-fu is made up of a single style. Kung-fu is just an umbrella term; there are many schools that teach different styles.
The person that comes to most people’s minds when they think of kung-fu is Bruce Lee, but kung-fu doesn’t only look like what Bruce Lee does.
There's so many videos on YouTube of boxers and MMA fighters challenging "kung-fu masters" in fights and winning. In your opinion, which is the best kung-fu style to fight in an MMA tournament?
Well, every style has its strengths and weaknesses. I think that it's best to learn what's useful and discard what doesn't work for you. Don't just limit yourself to a single style. On the same token, though, the usefulness of a style ultimately depends on the person. If the person fighting is an expert who's trained for years, then their kung-fu can be deadly, but if the person fighting just started training yesterday, then of course they would only know the “skin” of the art, so to speak.
In my opinion though, the simplest and easiest kung-fu to learn is wing chun. It’s the easiest to apply, easiest to learn, and doesn’t have too many forms to memorize. The forms don’t have too many useless movements and the stances are, at least in my opinion, applicable [to real life]. Maybe other people will disagree, but this is personal experience.
What's the most unbelievable thing you've seen a kung-fu master do?
Hmmm, the most common one people see is breaking hard objects... iIron bars, cement, and big blocks of ice, that’s all pretty standard. But the craziest thing I’ve seen is the "iron shirt" skill. People channel their chi energy into certain parts of their body to withstand strikes from empty hands or weapons. My own teacher mastered that skill.
What about some lesser-known skills that a kung-fu master might, umm... master. Stuff that seems unbelievable to the average person?
What I mentioned is it really. If we’re talking about something like levitating or jumping really high, I would say that’s straight up TV content. If we had that kind of knowledge, then our athletes would have won medals the long jump and high jump at the Olympics by now.
How do you define chi? How does one cultivate it?
I think chi is a type of energy in the human body. It exists either in a passive or an active state, and can be cultivated through specific methods like breathing or meditation. It’s something that has to be learned under the guidance of a teacher, not a skill you can learn safely on your own. Without proper guidance it’s possible to pop an artery or sever a nerve practicing.
Can you tell me about this "iron egg skill"? How can someone get kicked in the crotch and still be able to have kids afterwards?
Oh yeah! That's actually a skill where you can channel your chi into your testicles so that they’re strong enough to drag a car. But that’s Shaolin stuff—the monks train really hard so they’re able to tow a car with their penis.
We know that people like Ip Man (Bruce Lee’s teacher) knew how to do it, and he had kids, so I would say that it doesn’t interfere with your chances to reproduce much.
So how does it work? Are there specific exercise you need to do first?
There’s a version of this where the testicles are pulled into the scrotal cavity using qigong. I’ve never actually trained in it, but I’ve heard that the skill is accomplished by sucking your balls up into your abdomen.
Can you actually set things on fire or levitate using qigong?
Man, in my opinion that falls into the realm of the supernatural. Like for normal humans, that would be impossible without the aid of some special "entities."
What does a typical day of training look like for you?
My training routine is split between techniques and physique. The physical training supports the technique. This includes running, push-ups, sit-ups, and general conditioning that will forge a strong body. Technique must also prioritize form and application—what use is a strong physique with poor technique, or good technique with a poor physique?
What's the future of traditional kung-fu look like?
Traditional kung-fu has to get with the times. We, as coaches, can’t get too caught up in tradition. Think smartphones—every year they keep coming out with more advanced models that make the old ones obsolete. If we force ourselves to use old models or technologies, we’ll get left behind by the times. So the key here is to continue preserving tradition while also absorbing elements of modernity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE ID.