KENPO & JEET KUNE DO – A COMPARISON
by Phil Buck (with thanks to Lee Wedlake)
Author’s Note: the following article is intended as an objective piece based on generalised comparison (not specific case studies) having studied & researched both arts in some depth. I make no judgements as to which is ‘better’. Please bear this in mind when reading.
The popular and influential fighting methodologies of Ed Parker’s Kenpo and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do are both the product of 20
century minds, taking the traditions of the Chinese martial arts and restructuring them with the Western fighter in mind. Adherents of either strongly advocate their own approach yet often do not recognise the many similarities and shared ideas of the two, instead each often being critical of the other.
In historical terms alone the two methods, and their two creators, have things in common. As well as being contemporaries there were direct connections between them. Both men knew each other well, and Lee’s ‘big break’ came at the famous Long Beach tournament organised by Parker in 1964. The two men compared notes on physical technique and philosophy, and Parker recalls his first meeting with Lee in the Infinite Insights series. The two men also actively sought out the acting community, with Lee the higher profile of the two with his success in movies (which came sadly only posthumously after his very early death) but Parker equally as influential and often called ‘the High Prophet of the Hollywood Karate scene’. It is also interesting to note that many of the top names in JKD were originally Kenpoists – Dan Inosanto, Larry Hartsell and Paul Vunak to name but three.
But there is more to consider in a comparison than history alone.
The most striking fact that becomes immediately apparent when comparing Kenpo and JKD is the conceptual similarity of the two methods. Perhaps this is not all that surprising considering the Parker / Lee connections and sharing of knowledge. However, this similarity is disguised by the way in which the two methods approach their central tenet, which is to teach someone to be able to handle themselves on the streets of the present day. Both methods recognise a single common fact – that one cannot ‘pre-program’ set sequences of fighting. The nature of combat is dynamic and ever changing, therefore one cannot hope to predict what will happen. This is where many traditional arts have attracted criticism – that in employing preset patterns for self defence, the true nature of understanding what it is to actually fight is lost. Kenpo and JKD both address this fundamental problem, but in different ways.
The approach taken by both is essentially conceptual but often not apparently so. A series of principles and theories are laid down as a basic framework from which each student evolves their own tailored approach that will work for them, and allow each person to adapt to the conditions of combat. Both arts are rooted in the traditional Chinese disciplines followed by the absorption of other arts and methods. In Kenpo these are blended into a single whole, while in JKD it is common to study each art separately. Both also rely on the ability of a student to transcend their basic training and move to a level of ability where they can freely operate as required.
Kenpo refers to this as ‘tailoring’ and the ‘spontaneous’ phase of motion, and argues that this can only be achieved once one has come to understand the ‘ideal’ scenarios. To achieve this foundation of knowledge, Kenpo employs self defence techniques – sequences of motion – not as techniques to use per se but as examples and illustrations of ideas that can be built up into a vocabulary of motion. Kenpo master Lee Wedlake refers to these as ‘fight simulations’, functioning in much the same way as a flight simulation – providing a certain stimulus to which an ideal response is applied. In Kenpo, this structure allows a student to develop the necessary skills in a progressive way, with each level building on the next and over time introducing more sophisticated motion and concepts. Ultimately, by studying and understanding the base 154 techniques, given situational specifics and how they are effected by such factors as environment, one internalises the concepts through an understanding of ‘why’ as well as ‘how’, and is able to fluidly operate extemporaneously against any form of attack. Ultimately the Kenpoist is able to draw from the body of knowledge they possess but is not necessarily restricted to specific sequences of motion.
Where Kenpo emphasis a depth and breadth of understanding, JKD takes the more minimal approach but the philosophy is the same, as summed up in the famous phrase ‘Take what is useful, reject what is useless & add what is specifically your own.’ The JKD fighter studies fighting techniques from a variety of arts utilising a base structure of concepts (Lee’s own modified Wing Chun system of Jun Fan) as a foundation, then takes a reductive approach, removing movements and techniques that on a personal basis are not found to be practical. What remains is that person’s individual truth, and results in an individualised base of knowledge that enables one to flow from technique to technique as the situation requires. This knowledge is tied together by the concept of range, wherein the JKD fighter seeks to flow to whichever type of art or movement is appropriate within a given fighting distance or scenario. This in turn allows a person to connect arts together through their functionality in given ranges, and by relying heavily on sparring, one internalises the ability to simply react, enabling one to move spontaneously employ a relevant and effective technique regardless of its origin based on the stimulus given by the attacker. In JKD this is summed up in the phrase ‘adapt like a shadow, respond like an echo.’
The foundation of any art is the basic stance, and it is interesting that the basic on guard stances of Kenpo and JKD are identical in all but name. Kenpo defines its neutral bow stance according to the specific body structure of each practitioner, and constructs the stances according to three basic ideas (the heel toe line to protect the groin, the knee-heel line to create a neutral depth and the ‘line of sight’ to sink the body weight for a combination of stability and mobility). This theoretical structure enables one to create a neutral, uncommitted posture within the three dimensions of height, width and depth which by extension allows the practitioner to instantly move in any direction through these dimensions via the medium of the connected stances of Kenpo (the bows, horses, cats, twists and so on).
The JKD ‘by jhong’ stance looks similar, and was originally devised within the Jun Fan curriculum as a way of allowing faster and more alive footwork (again this happened after Lee met Parker who famously demonstrated his perceived shortcomings of the basic Wing Chun fighting stance on Lee). It also maintains a heel toe line (although not referred as such) that protects the groin, and keeps the legs bent in order to be able to move explosively in any direction. The difference between the two comes in application – the neutral bow is designed as base neutral platform rooted to the ground from which one can explosively launch techniques, while the by jhong stance functions more as a boxer’s stance would, enabling constant deceptive movement and footwork. In reality, both are interchangeable: it is how they are introduced and used differs.
Stance is a key area where the arts diverge – Kenpo footwork operates through a system of defined stances enabling a constant connection to the ground for balance, whereas JKD abandons the concept of structured stances in favour of using the by jhong as a catch all base from which to move as required (although it is still a defined stance).
Expanding out from this are a number of fundamental structural ideas shared by Kenpo and JKD. Both arts heavily employ the lead hand as a primary weapon. Both arts stress the ability to be fluid and adapt to changing conditions. Both arts strongly emphasise protecting the centreline. Both arts also strongly prefer an aggressive counter offensive mindset, and are not defensive in nature. They both essentially attack the attacker.
On a more conceptual level, both arts also define four ranges (albeit with different terminology) of combat beginning with the kicking range and moving through to the grappling range, referred to in Kenpo as control manipulation. Both arts have a preference to move to the close range as quickly as possible – Kenpo prefers the close hitting range (ie punching range and in) while JKD demonstrates a marked emphasis on the trapping range. Both therefore move to close range to dominate and control a fight and finish it efficiently.
Both arts also significantly employ sophisticated checking principles. Kenpo’s checking principles are one of the arts more well known aspects and were scientifically devised and explored by Parker, whereas JKD applies check principles taken directly from Wing Chun (pak sao, lop sao etc.) and the live hand of Kali which is often described as being as if not more important than the lead hand. Deriving from this, both arts heavily employ simultaneous actions to defend / hit at the same time as well as other advanced timing-based principles of counter-attack such as strikes while checking, trapping actions to shut down counters, intercepting and the direct counterstrike (where no defensive action is applied – just the hit).
Many will point out that in application, Kenpo and JKD just look different. Well yes, there’s no denying that. They are different arts – separate methods taught differently using different principles of movement. But if we examine this more closely, we can see that the differences lie not necessarily in the application of fighting skill but in the way in which those fighting skills are developed. Kenpo and JKD both employ combination techniques and use the ability to flow into back up moves as required. However Kenpo prefers to define these scenarios and explore them thoroughly, using this base to develop a logic-defined ability to overwhelm its attacker with a continuous assault with each movement logically creating the opportunity for the next in a dynamic flow of action and reaction. JKD is at the surface more deceptive, preferring not to pre-formulate scenarios but instead take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves as they would do in actual combat utilising principles such as ‘five ways of attack’ (single direct, progressive indirect, immobilisation, drawing and combination) to exploit weaknesses and adapt strategy as needed.
The reasons that the differences in the two methods have developed in the way they have may be more apparent when one looks at their founders. Parker was a large man, big built with a lot of mass to generate power. It is only natural he would want to take advantage of that, along with an ability to absorb punishment that comes from size – ie the ability to take a hit. The result – an emphasis at the basic level on power, blocking, hard punching and so on (although techniques of redirection and deflection become more apparent in advanced training). Bruce Lee by contrast was renowned for being shorter and lighter limbed with less physical mass. He heavily emphasised physical attribute conditioning but did so more as a way to develop stamina in a fight to last the distance rather than take punishment – ie avoid a hit. Thus, JKD principles centre around a person’s ability to be mobile and adaptable, and emphasise counter-offensive tactics that do not rely on power but evasiveness, deceptiveness and footwork.
Even from these differences we can once more identify comparisons. Both Kenpo and JKD emphasise developing attributes – Kenpo through its techniques, sets and forms, JKD through its drills and conditioning. But those attributes differ. Witness contrasting defensive strategy – Kenpo blocks, checks or parries and moves directly or angularly into the attacker, employing evasive foot maneuvres as necessary. Thus one potentially needs the ability to take a blow – to stop a punch or kick – if necessary. JKD doesn’t – it aims to get out the way or stop hit / intercept in line with the notion that an average person simply doesn’t have the size or mass to stop a punch from a 260 lb. So the approach was defined accordingly – hence Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist, to emphasise the move away from block hit counters.
It could therefore be said that Kenpo and JKD, from the same conceptual basis, evolved differently according to the preferences of their creators. Within this paradigm we can therefore look more critically at the nature of the two arts.
Parker used a terminology-intensive approach and often likened Kenpo to linguistics or academic study, thus requiring the student to move through a structured curriculum of techniques, forms and ideas. This is a system approach, and thus requires one to grasp the core concepts of the system in order to understand it and successfully be able to use it. However, the high level of structure in the teaching phase and the often complex nature of advanced techniques and principles often prevent individuals from transitioning to this freer approach and essentially trap them in the system on a ‘see-do’ basis on a quest for more and more structured material.
Similarly, using Parker’s concept of tailoring, many have tried to do this too soon in their development with limited understanding, and others have chosen to reconstruct the system in line with their own preferences to such an extent that, in the words of Lee Wedlake, they ‘innovate themselves right out of the system’. As a result many versions of the system exist making it harder and harder to find first generation students with genuine Parker information. Crucially, Kenpo is also criticised for its reliance of a traditional structure at odds with currently popular modes of practice that lean to an MMA freestyle approach. At worst, Kenpo has been decried as obsolete and even contradictory – citing the notion that using preset sequences will mean that body memory will always default to these most practised ingrained movements and therefore prevent free expression.
Initially JKD seems more in line with the MMA approach, but much of the method is rooted in Lee’s own personal approaches, all of which were absorbed from other sources both technical and philosophical. Therefore it stands to reason that Lee’s traits are reflected in the method he created. Many reports indicate that Lee, while talented, did not have the necessary depth of knowledge of or ability in his core system (Wing Chun) and so chose to abandon it to create his own method. He was known for studying for short periods of time in many different arts, and it can be argued that his resultant approach was simply a patchwork of superficial knowledge of various systems incorporating elements of philosophy he had encountered during his university education.
He was also by some accounts a poor teacher, preferring instead to condition and spar with his students, hence the JKD approach has often been criticized for having a poor basics and a lack of structure / substance in their training, instead relying on ‘borrowing’ from other arts. Perhaps most significantly, many argue JKD today defies its creator’s own stated core concept of personal freedom, with Lee even saying the name JKD was meaningless. JKD students the world over not only trade on JKD and Lee commercially but also seem to study the same systems and move broadly the same way, thus apparently trapping them in ‘ a system of systems’. This would suggest the antithesis of personal freedom.
With this in mind one must ask one question – when we choose an art we want to study, are we able to accept its approach and do what the art requires of us ? Many choose the wrong art for them and quit. Some become highly critical of what they have left. Many simply plod along as part of their routine. A few are highly successful. Fewer still successfully pave the way for change. Indisputably both Parker and Lee fall into the latter category. Respective strengths and criticism aside, their methods catalysed evolution with martial arts and in many ways Kenpo and JKD can be looked at flipsides of the same coin – the same basic conceptual drive but a different face: one evolved from tradition, one rejecting it. In practice, one for someone who prefers structure and study, one for someone who prefers to get in there and learn by fighting perhaps. Certainly ideal methods for different types of people. But both are ultimately for the person who wants to learn to protect themselves.
This is the most important thing to remember regardless of personal preference, criticism, approach or political interference – both Kenpo and JKD are concerned with equipping their students to defend themselves effectively on the street.
As to which is best for the individual (there can never really be an objective ‘best’), the best advice is usually the old maxim ‘caveat emptor’ – Let the buyer be aware. One must make up one’s own mind – that is essentially the point.