Kung Fu’s “Changing Times”

24 12 2014

Let’s organize this article differently first. I would like to introduce the conclusion first, then the body. That should make this interesting….

Like it or not, Kung Fu is changing. It isn’t the “old days” anymore. You are now a dinosaur. Yes, you probably can’t relate to today’s Sifu–and especially today’s students. But guess what? These arts are older than the word “old”, and there was a time that some Sifu looked at what you called the “old days”, shook his head, and couldn’t relate. Bottom line… The martial arts is an ancient, but ever-changing, art. The key to staying relevant is to realize what the changes are, and to find a way to make the most of those changes.

Edit:  Instructor Charles Kwok (Hung Gar teacher in Richmond, Canada. He studies Mok Kwai Lan Hung Gar under Sifu Joseph Kwok, and Wang Kiu Wing Chun under Sifu Ray Van Raamsdonk) posed the following statement:

Been watching a few documentaries about different styles of kung fu. Many of them talk about the old days in Hong Kong. I noticed a common phrase they would use and that is “In the old days, life was hard.” So life was hard back then, the economy wasn’t great, so people had to work. However, they also all talk about how students would still show up to the school and practice hard. Nowadays I keep hearing people say that they have to work and therefore miss class. Kind of confusing if you asked me.

Something we often hear in the Chinese martial arts is how much older the Chinese arts is than other arts. We love to brag about how the Chinese culture birthed the “mother martial art” to other countries’ arts and other styles. On the other hand, there are many who consider Chinese martial artists as guys stuck in the past, who refuse to allow their arts to change and evolve. Even many that are considered classical and outdated (compared to modern/mixed styles) look at the Chinese martial artist and think how useless our arts happen to be. At the same time, the two groups may not realize that the other is here to stay, and both groups are as valid as any other. A good analogy is to look at the acceptance of rap music in American pop culture. When rap music was born, many thought it a fad that would be isolated among African American urban youth (even older African Americans scoffed at it)–and now look. Hip Hop culture is the single most influential form of pop culture in the world. While the African American may be seen as a second class citizen in America–Hip Hop culture as a subculture of the African American community has influenced music, dress, behavior, standards of beauty on every continent on the planet. Likewise, both MMA and Chinese martial arts are found in everything from the fitness industry, to fashion, to children’s cartoons, to applications in health care, and in every form of media.

Like I said, you just have to find your place.

The old days saw martial artists who were die-hard fanatics. People walked on the street wearing martial arts uniforms. My colleagues and I even passed up college educations to study the martial arts full-time. We took whatever abuse our teachers dished out in class, trained until our knuckles bled, and if we broke a bone–we took off the cast and fought in tournaments. One thing our Masters could count on… tomorrow night, regardless if it was Christmas Eve, we were hurt, or the lights were cut off–we were coming to class. Fighters were even tougher. They fought anyone anytime anywhere, and no one bickered over money. You accepted whatever the promoter was willing to pay, regardless of the rules or how long you had to train. The only thing that mattered was there was an opponent and I wanted to prove that I could beat him. Today? HUH! Fighters cancel fights because they got hurt in training. Go figure…

Teachers lament the caliber of students we attract today. When I came to Jow Ga in the 80s, my Sifu told my family I was too young–and I was 11. We visited three times, and had it not been for my Si Hing Raymond Wong, I might have gone to another school. But today’s Sifu is promoting kids younger than 11 to Sifu (and they call that a “Black Sash”, whatever that is). 😉  Today’s student is lazy, worried that he might get hurt, impatient, thinks the Sifu works for HIM since he is paying him, will quit if work gets busy/he gets married/has a child/finds a kwoon with more convenient classes or lower rates. Today’s student is younger, more fickle and impulsive, thinks he knows everything, will research your system’s history and argue that Shaolin is a fable and Da Mo didn’t create kung fu, blah blah blah….

But we have to understand that even the Kung Fu Sifu has changed, along with the art and the student, as well as how we run our schools. First of all, more information is available to students today than it was 30+ years ago. You have students who research all over the world via the internet before walking through your doors. Hell, with Youtube, I wouldn’t be surprised if guys joined your schools already knowing your school’s first form! The economy demands that teachers take on more students than he needed to 40 years ago. At one time, Kung Fu was only for the tough, and either you were strong enough to handle the training, or your took your sissy self to a dance studio. You can’t do that today, where rent is $2,000/month and students who get hurt will sue you. The martial arts, if it is to survive in today’s economy, must cater to the masses to a point. Either that, or you have a class for the average guy walking through your door–and a separate class for the hard-core students. Many of us have not found that middle ground, so we are either suffering financially or making a living but unable to put out the quality that our own Masters did. We also must understand that today’s student is more educated, probably has more on his plate than yesterday’s student, and has far more teachers and schools and lineages to choose from. Simply put, it takes more effort to retain students than it did yesteryear. We also must find a way to make what we do more relevant to the lives of the types of students we encounter today.

Teachers often have to decide if they will focus on fighting, form, competition, lion dance, fitness, children, street self-defense, or simply preserving the art. Yes, it is possible to do all of the above. However, there are far more Sifu in every city than there was 30 years ago when our Masters arrived on these shores (wherever “these shores” happen to be). Competition is fierce. Students are also more critical. When I lived in Baltimore in the 90s, I took students to a tournament and fought as a light weight. I won my division, but as usual, I lost to a larger opponent for Grands. Matter of fact, I sometimes beat the heavyweights, but found problems with faster-but-still-stronger middle weights. No biggie, Guro lost a match, and Monday it’s back to the grind at the school. Yet, today, a loss could mean a loss of students, as we real guys must compete against Masters who have claimed to have never lost a fight and movie characters who could beat 10 men, etc. There wasn’t pressure on teachers in the 80s to fight and be a champion, but in today’s community we have several “World Champion 10th Degree Grandmasters” in every city! Advertising is not as easy as it was years ago when you could simply say you teach Kung Fu and people joined. Today, you need to be slick, have a nice logo/slogan, claim a high rank, dress your school up like a Shaolin temple or MMA gym… It’s just not as bad a thing as it seems. Kung Fu in Hong Kong in the 60s is unlike in the hometown its masters came from in the 40s. Kung Fu systems under the founders are unlike they are today, even 20 years ago under your Grandmasters. We just have to find where the martial arts fits in the society we live in–then find a way to apply our knowledge in that society… not much different than finding out how techniques from the form must be applied when fighting for your life. In a way, the martial arts aren’t supposed to stay the same from generation to generation. So, the next time we point a finger at younger Sifus and shake our heads, remember that once upon a time, some old, grumpy Sifu pointed his finger at us and shook his head. 🙂

Yeah, you’re right, times have changed.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.




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