What’s Next for the Chinese Martial Arts in the West?

6 05 2016

So while we are on the subject of conflict…

There is a saying that “bad press is better than no press”. Lot’s of truth to that. People think everything in life must be 100% positive, 100% of the time–and I disagree. There is a balance that must be managed to everything, and those who ignore the part they don’t like will find difficulty  when they are forced to encounter them. Best that you acknowledge and learn the negative, than have it smack you in the face and not know how to handle it. The Chinese martial arts is a good example of this, and I have a theory. You may not agree, and that’s okay. Think about it; if every martial artist never had a feud, never had differences, never fought each other, agreed on EVERYTHING–TCMA (traditional Chinese martial arts) would be so boring. So, Sijo #1 says I found a great way to do Kung Fu. Sijo #2 says no, I have a better way. #1 and #2 can’t agree, so they spar to see who was right, and voila! Regardless of who wins, both have tested their art, both modified their methods based on the results of the match. Perhaps there were several matches over time, several over generations… wouldn’t both systems get stronger from all of that tempering and testing and modifying? Besides, in order to have a “better way”–wouldn’t that require them to disagree with their teachers?

And right there ^^ in one short paragraph, the DC Jow Ga Federation has summed up the entire history of Kung Fu over all these centuries and millenia. A Kung Fu man learns Kung Fu. He thinks he can improve it. He encounters someone who thinks not–they test their theories–and new arts and systems are born and fused and molded and hardened. So here’s another saying:  A little conflict is good. And so it is!

Thanks to Bruce Lee, the Chinese martial arts had its “bad press”. He criticized how our masters and grandmasters were doing Kung Fu. People disagreed, feelings were hurt, there were even a few fights. In the long run, more people became curious about the Chinese arts, and our Sifus were able to give themselves a pretty good living from all that attention. Sure, some pieces of the art had to be adjusted to accomodate the new type of martial arts student:  the western, non-Chinese student. Admit it, they learn different from Asians. So Kung Fu here in the West got a few tweaking here and there so that our Sifus could attract, teach, and retain students. Gave it its own personality too. You could take Hung Gar here in America and put it against Hung Gar in China and see some differences in most cases. Sometimes the art and forms may be the same, but terminology and cultures will differ. In others, simply because there are more non-Chinese styles around American kwun (schools)–American Kung Fu schools may be practiced differently, have different clothing, etc. Like it or not, we must acknowledge and honor American lineages of Chinese martial arts to be just as valid as other non-Chinese lineages, despite how unique and strange they may seem. Sadly, many who come from non-Chinese lineages do not feel secure in being different, and therefore look to leave what their teachers gave them in order to look or resemble Chinese lineages. And this practice only gives credibility to those who discredit American/European/Latin lineages. Either way, Bruce Lee’s demand that Kung Fu update to modern, Western culture had an effect on all of us, as we all benefited from the increased interest and enrollments as well as the new developments that occurred as a result of his influence.

 

yeah, thanks for forcing us to take on kiddie classes, Daniel San!

yeah, thanks for forcing us to take on kiddie classes, Daniel San!

In the 1980s, I would say two things had an effect on Chinese martial arts:  Inflation and Karate Kid, the movie. (Yeah, I said it!) First, with the rising cost of real estate, a Sifu could no longer make a living with a small school of 20 students like he could in the 70s. Tuition was weighed against one’s own bills and many people would drop out if personal finances disallowed practice. And Karate Kid–I could write a book on how it hurt Kung Fu… Chinese martial arts schools which at first were teenaged and adult-oriented schools, now had to compete with Karate schools to be relevant in a new industry being created because of that movie’s popularity. In 1981, I was turned away by my Sifu who thought I was too young for Jow Ga. By 1987, schools were recruiting students as young as 5! If you wanted to stay in business or capitalize on the new children’s market–you had to accept (and learn to teach) children. Well, many Chinese style teachers taught arts that were too difficult for younger students to learn. We also taught techniques that were inappropriate for younger children. Unlike our Tae Kwon Do/Karate counterparts, Chinese martial arts had to be modified for age-appropriateness, and many Sifu could not keep up. Tae Kwon Do’s first form, Chun Ji/Tae Kuk Il Jang/Pal Gye Il Jang, consists mainly of three or four movements done several times–compared to Bak Siu Lum’s Gune Lic or Hung Gar’s Gung Gee Fuk Fu–which helped those schools retain younger students, while CMA schools could only retain the few whose focus allowed them to stay interested in such complicated forms. Tae Kwon Do is simpler and easier to teach to large groups, while Chinese styles require more one-on-one attention–making it difficult to do in a commercially successful school. These two things made running a succesful Chinese style school much more difficult than a Karate or TKD school, so we saw less growth in Chinese styles.

I could go on and possibly write a book about why Kung Fu had not grown like Karate and Tae Kwon Do, but I’d like to get to my point… Let’s skip forward to the 90s and Y2Ks.

I would call the 1990s the hey day for child-oriented martial arts schools, aka the “McDojo”. (This is actually an unfair label, as many child-oriented schools are in fact very good and NOT out to take your money) In the 90s, I saw more millionaires come out of this industry than ever, and many of them were Chinese martial artists who came to TKD just to make a better living. I recall a group of teachers come to me to invest in a franchise and I turned them down, just to watch each become wildly successful. None were TKD teachers, but they became them in order to enter the business. One such teacher is today an MMA gym–which leads me to my second point. Coming out of the 90s, MMA was becoming popular as was another genre of martial arts school you might not have noticed:  the Self Defense academy. Look around you, in whatever city you happen to be in, you will notice many adult oriented schools returning–and non are commercial karate. They may teach Krav Maga, Filipino Martial Arts, Brazilian Jujitsu, Aikido (nod to Steven Segal), Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee is still more popular than ever)… and many arts you may not have noticed. Most are doing very well, not all are riding the wave of a fad either. So the question you might ask is, What about the Chinese Martial Arts?

What happened?

I think many of us got stuck into tradition. Unlike our own Sifus and Masters, who were willing to evolve in order to accomodate the change in times and culture–many of us feel like we are doing something wrong if we don’t practice this art exactly as our teachers gave it to us. Some of us who live in America, look to Hong Kong to figure out what to do, yet we have two separate cultures, traditions and industries. Many of us learned and practiced our Kung Fu completely unaware of what the rest of the martial arts community is up to. Even after 20, 30 years in the arts we looked around one day and discovered that the martial arts community evolved several times over yet we are still doing the same things, the same way. No one is saying to add Zumba or MMA to your repertoire. But it would be a good idea to find out what successful martial artists are doing and to find a way to fit what we do in with that! One of the most successful flyers I used–I got my tag line from a grappler:  “Got Stand Up?”  I don’t know much about grappling, but I do know how to fight standing up. We did a monthly fight night for years, and fought all types in our school. As a result, we have had many mixed martial arts fighters come to my school to learn plain old, Jow Ga and FMA. So I marketed to that group offering just to work with them with standup fighting and I didn’t have to change much  to accomodate them. You could do the same. Here are a few other areas:

  • Fitness classes with a Kung Fu theme
  • Weapons workshops
  • Martial Arts for aspiring actors (a GREAT area. I’ve taught several myself)
  • Self Defense/Street Survival–learn the jargon and see what street survival experts do; you’ll find that Kung Fu fits perfectly with this area
  • **Tie-ins with the Ip Man/Tony Jaa/Jet Li movies**–I can’t believe more schools aren’t doing this! Our children don’t know much about Bruce Lee these days, but they sure as heck know who Yip/Ip Man is. Isn’t that crazy? He is crazy popular. You better get on this bandwagon!!!
  • Tie-ins with every Ninja Turtle/Anime movie that hits the big screen–This is a gold mine. Chinese martial arts fits in so well with this genre, it’s crazy
  • Tournaments as an alternative to school/intramural sports–many children are not athletically gifted. Most sports will try your kid out then reject them if they aren’t “naturals”. I really dislike that. However, the martial arts is possibly one of the only sports where no kid rides the bench, they don’t have to try out to do it, and every kid is taught the game from the ground up with zero fear of being left behind. How could a parent turn that down. Not only that, your child is really learning a trade! Even if he goes to college, gets a job, he will always be able to supplement his income by teaching Kung Fu. Come on, Sifu–you know what to say!

The point is, Kung Fu isn’t dying. We are just experiencing a recession. It’s time to realize it isn’t 1985; it’s 2016. The potential Kung Fu student isn’t turned on by Shaw Brothers films anymore. This art has survived longer than many spoken languages–outlived governments. Surely, the generation walking the Earth today can find a way to keep it relevant.

Anyone have ideas to add? Please list them in the comments below! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

 

 

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