Conflict in the Kung Fu Style… (aka “How Lineages Split”)

9 01 2016

A theme you may hear oft-repeated on this blog will the recurring idea that innovation–or breaking from tradition–is in fact, a very traditional tradition in the Chinese martial arts. The main idea behind this statement is that every new style and new lineage began with one master learning an art (or several), and thinking, “I bet I can come up with something better”.  It isn’t disrespectful, as many would imply. It isn’t arrogant, although some may argue that the Si Jo was too immature or inexperienced to start/create his own style. This may be true, but if you go back in time, and look up your own heroes and the Grandmasters you follow and admire–you just might notice that many of these men did so after only 2-3 years of study, and were often in their early 20s. Some were mere teens!

Add to that the fact that every time a man steps out on his own to do something new, there will be 25 detractors saying it cannot be done. And this is why we all know who the great Kung Fu founders and Grandmasters are, but we most often cannot name their Si Hing or other classmates. History remembers the daring, the courageous, the different. Remember that.

On the other side, let’s look at the inverse to this notion… When new styles and lineages are not positive. We hear of it every day in the West. Master dies, leaving five senior students behind. Yet rather than a powerful organization with five leaders, or four leaders backing a named new senior–we find that many once-great Kung Fu families become splintered trees of many branches, often with all five students claiming to be the new Grandmaster. Or worse–each of the five claiming that the other four lack knowledge, “true” art that Sifu only taught the one, disassociation, etc.

Why does this happen? Why was everyone strong when Sifu was alive and now no one is on the same page? Let’s look at some of the causes.

  1. No clear hierarcy of who is senior to whom. Often, as teachers we do not like to name a clear, definite lineage rank structure. Who do you rank higher? The guy who got their first? The student twenty years later who was the best fighter? The guy who wasn’t the best fighter or the first to walk through the door, but was most loyal? The guy who learned the most? The one you were closest to? Your son? If you do not name a successor that everyone agrees with and will respect when you are alive, don’t expect them to do it when you are dead. Add to this phenomena a money-generating business system–you’re lack of clarity is sure to cause friction. And here is the important part:  If you do name a successor, it is your job to make sure that this successor truly is the lion in the room, and he must be a wise, admired, respected lion at that. There is nothing worse than having a senior in the presence of juniors who know they can demolish him, except having a senior that the juniors can defeat–whom they also do not like nor look up to. Leadership must come with respect and admiration. As the Master, you must ensure that the man/woman you name is capable of handling that role in as many capacities as the role requires. Some may argue that fighting skill is irrelevant. I beg to differ; this is the martial arts–not a college fraternity.
  2. Rank structure unclear. There is a difference between hierarchy and rank structure. In the Chinese martial arts, we often do not have clearly defined rank structures. Something we often question each other is proof of that:  Not “What rank are you?”, but “What form are you on?”  If the form a student is learning happens to actually reflect your school’s rank structure–adhere to it, and never stray. I have seen teachers show favoritism and violate their own system’s rank/form list, and it led to all sorts of problems. The result? Guys who know three forms who were far better in skill than other classmates who knew ten. Consistently training students who attended classes for five years being outranked (forms-wise) than junior classmates who attended sporadically. Trust me, years later when they are both grown Sifu, neither will respect the other. “I outranked you although you’re my senior”, but the other saying “You were teacher’s pet but I always could whip you…”  Bottom line, create a rank structure, adhere to it, and make ALL students pay their dues whether you like them more than the others or not, adding this:  Make sure SKILL reflects RANK. Don’t let one slip through just because they’ve been around, it will backfire.
  3. Have a plan or schedule of events for your school’s/system’s growth. This is huge. For many, especially in the Chinese martial arts, we do not strategize, nor do we define “growth”. Growth can equate to the number of schools. It can also refer to the number of people who have seen our styles and students. It can refer to the number of alliances we have. Political accomplishments. Community functions. The influence and impact our schools have on the local community. The amount of respect our system and school receives from other martial artists. The number of tournaments and other accolades won by our students. Or one that many CMA teachers do not seem very concerned with:  The actual skill of your students’ Kung Fu. Being Sifu, Grandmaster, local system leader–you must be more than simply a “certified” Kung Fu man. You need to be more than just Chinese, or Chinese-speaking. You must have a vision for your system, and everyone under you should know what that vision is, and be guided by your vision as well as your plan to get there. When a ship has been circling the ocean endlessly and the crew realize that the ship’s Captain doesn’t know where they are going–it is inevitable, they will mutiny and one will take hold of the rudder. Don’t be that Sifu. Your students will follow you to the ends of the Earth, but you must assure them that there is a pot of gold at the end of the journey. I myself do not follow my system’s leader, I follow two of my Si Hing whom I admire and believe in, and trust their knowledge, leadership and vision. Is it traditional or disrespectful to my system? To be honest, it doesn’t matter. I want to see my system grow and be respected, and I found these two to have the vision that aligns with my dreams. Styles grow when there are luminaries at the head. They do not when no one is holding a compass.
  4. If you are the leader of your system or school, you must have the qualities of a leader. A. You must have integrity. If people do not trust your honesty and sincerity, they will not follow you. They must have a good feeling when you speak, or they will not follow you–even if they may be mistaken. Greasy personalities need not apply. B. You must be unselfish. You must put the organization ahead of yourself, and want the organization to be for the masses, not yourself. If you spend all your time talking about the system, good. If you spend all your time talking about yourself, bad. You can be a good man, likeable and honest, but as a leader, people will not follow you. Even if it were true–you cannot allow yourself to be seen as narcissistic; it’s off-putting. C. You want the system and school to outlive you. Don’t plan for retirement, unless you are actively grooming a successor for years. Too many masters are so wrapped up in themselves and their leadership, they fail to prop up their students. My Sifu always put us out to demonstrate his art. When he died, most of us were well-known in the community and all of our schools were successful because we each had intact reputations built by him shining the spotlight on us. By contrast, I know a master who rarely put his students out. He was the center of attraction of all his demonstrations, he never introduced his seniors to other masters, and when he relocated (eventually passing a decade later)–no one knew who his students were and their schools were relatively unknown, although they had been around for nearly 20 years. D. You cannot love money, ego, pride, or power. Make up your mind–either you are a Kung Fu master, or you are a businessman. Yes, it is possible to be both. However, the system benefits most from a leader who does not sacrifice the integrity of his art to line his pockets, boost his ego, feed his pride, or increase his power. One cannot be slave to two masters, and if anything is competing with your love for your martial arts, just as it would competing with your wife–one will be neglected and unattended. You know what happens to unattended loves right? Someone comes along and takes it away. E. You must be a master at psychology and relationships. Funny story. All my life, I grew up thinking that I was my grandfather’s favorite grandson. I loved him deeply, and to this day can barely talk about him without feeling emotional. Everything about my life after his death, I’ve done with him in mind. Out of his grandsons, everyone says I look the most like him. I have his mannerisms, his temper, his uniqueness, and his love for the martial arts. At a family function a shortly after his death, I was distributing some of his belongings to my cousins because I wanted them to have something to remember him by. After all, I was his favorite grandson. To my surprise, most of them HAD items. I mentioned that they could take a few more, as my father convinced me not to be selfish with my Lolo even if I were in fact, the favorite grandson. Well, guess what? One of my cousins broke it down to me with one rather juvenile, but profound statement:  Dummy, we ALL were his favorite grandson. How about that? Every kid of my generation grew up feeling like some special Golden Child, because my grandfather made us think that we were each extra talented, extra smart, bound for greatness–because we held a title no other boy on Earth shared: I was his favorite grandson, and boy I tell you–I felt invincible. Each one of us who came from this poor, illiterate martial arts teaching farmer went on to foreign soil to do something big. He was the master of psychology, able to balance the jealousy and competitiveness of more than 30 grandchildren and inspired us to do big things. <—-  Now take that example, Sifu, and do the same with your students. And find a way to do it where they do not fight, but love each other and support each other.

In the absence of effective leadership, the students will lead themselves. If styles splinter and relationships sour, it is often an indication that leadership failed to keep everyone reaching for the same goals. Sure, they can all travel different paths to the same goal–just another route–but a system’s leadership can keep all branches of that system or lineage tight as a single unit. Not necessarily as one big martial arts school, however, but as a family of many schools representing the same Ga supporting each other and their goals. This is the difference I see between many Tae Kwon Do schools for example, and Kung Fu schools. TKD schools will come together to promote each other’s events and functions, they bind together for “Master Club” memberships where your school’s premier membership will allow you to train at other TKD schools–even in other states, I have seen 10, 15 TKD schools purchase thousands of uniforms as a single unit to get a good quality, heavyweight uniform for under $10! If you take your system’s lineage, add up all the schools and all the students–we would have a small army. Imagine if that small army had powerful leadership, what they could accomplish.

One last thing, please do not confuse this article with a criticism of students who branch off to open schools. That is not my intent. I am merely making a statement of a system’s leader being unable to keep all the branches tightly together as one family unit. Perhaps your system or lineage does not have one leader in your country. You could start one beginning with you, or pull together as many of your Kung Fu brothers and sisters to start one. Hopefully, this article can help you get started with leadership.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

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