Kung Fu’s “Missing Link”… (Path to Mastery)

27 08 2016

I think we may end up hurting some feelings with today’s article.

A conversation we have a lot in the martial arts is over the term “Master”. Fortunately, the Chinese martial arts aren’t as bad as Karate and Filipino martial arts because we don’t have a multitude of titles and arbitrary degrees and ranks. However, we are in the same boat as many of those styles, because we have the same confusion most martial arts styles have about ranking and a standard level of skill before one is called “proficient”–or more:  Expert. In the Filipino martial arts, where traditionally there is neither the use of belts nor titles to denote expertise, we have a combination of both being confused. In my 17 years living in California I have met men who have claimed everything from tribal titles as martial art ranks, to colored belts (such as Red, White and Blue Belt and even “Camoflauge” belt!), to an unlimited number of degrees (two years ago a man gave me a card stating he was a 15th degree Black belter). In Karate and Tae Kwon Do, I have seen silly things like 6 year old Black belts, to “World Champion Green belters” who have never left the state, to 20 something year old “Masters”, 30 year old Grandmasters, and “Soke” titled men who have learned by seminar and correspondence courses…

I think I heard a giggle.

But don’t laugh, Kung Fu guys. In the Chinese community, I’ve met many Sifus who will argue that sparring in tournaments is too safe and therefore unrealistic–yet would not accept a medium, full or non-contact sparring match with me. I’ve seen Kung fu “masters” whose hand I could crush as easily as a child when we shook hands, and actually signed up students of other Sifu in my school who also carried a Sifu rank yet have never sparred with contact in their lives. We will tell potential students that yes, this art I’m teaching will protect you from a street-hardened criminal–yet YOU, the teacher, could be mugged as easily as they will by the average street punk. I’ve seen Kung Fu Masters argue that open circuit tournaments prevented their students from using “the real art” in sparring–so they barred students from sparring–just to hold Chinese-style-only tournaments and banning the same techniques and targets the open tournaments outlawed. I have attended many tournaments where Kung Fu schools will flood the forms competition and then be dressed and in the van by the time sparring begins. They drive home to friends and family and still profess to feel like warriors.

I have been challenged by Kung Fu “masters” whose skill is worse than any beginner I have ever taught. I could go on.

And then almost anytime you see a Kung Fu school attempt to appeal to the self-defense or competition fighting crowd, they distance themselves as far away from Traditional Kung Fu as they can… adding boxing, Muay Thai disguised as San Da, BJJ and Aikido disguised as Chin Na, MMA cages and clothing, Filipino martial arts and more. An entire subculture of non-traditional Kung Fu has emerged from Kung Fu itself:  Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. It’s ironic that Bruce Lee sought to teach the world the beauty of Chinese martial arts and attempted to give respect to Kung Fu, yet his followers look to everything except Chinese martial arts (other than Wing Chun) to make their art effective. JKD folks even call their teachers “Sifu/Guro”–Guro being the Tagalog word for “teacher”.

So what went wrong? Is Kung fu effective, or is it not? If it is effective, why do we not see traditional Chinese martial arts in the ring? Why is it that the only Kung Fu people who fight, fight like MMA guys? Our Masters declare these arts valid and effective, yet no one likes to answer this question–except for the many variations of the excuse “Our art is too deadly…” or “Well, the rules don’t…” Can we, or can we not, link what we do in traditional Chinese arts with how it is supposed to be used in combat?

Short answer is “yes”. Long answer to follow…

Kung Fu teachers have a missing link. See, the Chinese martial arts has existed for too long, too many generations in the community without being challenged and isolated. If you learn a skill and immediately transfer from student to teacher without a period of forging–your skill and knowledge will not be internalized. We see this all the time when martial arts students leave from a teacher and dare to make changes or adjust his art. Sometimes teachers, sometimes classmates, and too often–both–will denounce that student for not teaching the “pure” art handed to him. As if all things must remain the same for generations in order to improve.

And that last statement:  As if all things must remain the same for generations in order to improve — is the problem. You see, Chinese martial artists are not really interested in improving anything. The spirit all of our system founders founded our systems on seems to die just as quickly as the founders canonize them. It is foolish for anyone to call a branch of Choy Lay Fut “unpure” CLF. It is foolish to call any branch of Jow Ga “unpure”. It is foolish to call a branch of Wing Chun “unpure”. Each of these systems became the systems they are today, because the founders learned some fighting style, and decided to combine it with other skills and styles in order to create the new art. Were they interested or not in “improving” what they had learned previously? I would argue that yes, they were. Yet students hundred of years later flood the internet and magazine articles with charges of blasphemy just because one Sifu did not teach his art the same way the teachers before him taught it. Using my Jow Ga system as an example, one could criticize another branch of my Sifu’s Jow Ga just because most Jow Ga schools in America do not teach the same curriculum he taught. And most do not teach his curriculum the same way he did. But to call any branch of Jow Ga “incomplete” is counter productive, because what is Jow Ga, but incomplete Hung Gar, incomplete Choy Gar, and incomplete Northern Shaolin? The art is a combination of elements of those systems, and now has its own flavor–but like recipes for a favorite dish, no two schools are exactly alike. Who is qualified to rank one above the other?

Ditto that with some systems like Wing Chun, which have an easier to follow curriculum. Generally, just three hand forms, a dummy form, a knife form and a staff form. Yet Wing Chun varies from one system to another, based on the taste and specialties of the teachers. Are they not all Wing Chun?

But most of all, does it even matter?

Which brings me to my point. In the TCMA community, we waste time arguing over frivolous things like whose art is more pure or more like the previous generation–while groups like Gracie Jujitsu cares less if their art looks like its Japanese predecessor as long as they have a better, more effective version. While we debate which form was passed down to whom, Mas Oyama is declaring that his students can lick any man in the room. While we comb historical records to argue if indeed Wing Chun was founded by a woman, Buk Sing is busy in Fremont, California accepting–and beating–all challengers. Most Chinese martial artists really don’t think their students can beat “anyone around the beltway”, as I was once told another teacher’s goal was. We are claiming that our arts are highly effective forms of combat, while most people are searching and testing themselves to find out if they are. We are satisfied just saying it, while our competition is out researching, training, and then challenging, each other to actually strive to BE highly effective.

And this is why students who are serious about self defense and combat are looking everywhere except Chinese martial arts, while we lion dance and do tornado kicks in forms while telling our students “fighting is not important”.

Here is the bottom line:  You must seek out those who think they are better than you in order to test your skill. Anyone can stand in front of a class of student, month after month, year after year–and never have an equal question your skill, and one day claim to be an expert or even a “Master”. If your knowledge and theories and concepts are ever to manifest themselves into actual skill… and even more–into expertise–you must be willing to put yourself out there for criticism, by peers, by rivals, by opponents. You must be willing to touch hands with someone you’ve never met in order to answer the question Was my training and learning in vain?  You must be brave and humble enough to admit that Perhaps my teacher’s methods need updating…  You must shed your ego and allow a man who doesn’t think you’re very good to put his skills up against yours and be willing to deal with the consequences in the event you discover that your skills need improvement. Avoid these situations and you commit your students a grave disservice, you dishonor the teachers before you, and you are creating in the Chinese martial arts a terrible injustice. For too many years, Kung Fu teachers have avoided debate and dissention, avoided the sting and humiliation of defeat by never putting their skills to the test–and then in old age dared to strap on the title “Master” or call himself an expert. You cannot harden glass or metal until you heat it to the point they will be destroyed. A man cannot improve himself until he is willing to be broken down, dissected, challenged, and doubted. No man can achieve greatness if he avoids defeat and discomfort. Even PhD candidates must be challenged and defend their thesis in order to prove themselves worthy of being among their peers.

Teachers must be willing to share, compare, criticize, accept criticism, be challenged, adjust, and reinvent. Remaining stagnant has been going on for too long. Put your art and your skills to the test. Find out what needs to be adjusted and fortified. Because we ALL need it. Don’t dare tell a student your art has been time-tested if you have never allowed another man to test YOUR Kung Fu.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

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Understanding Your Kung Fu Like the Cobbler

24 08 2016

When I was a kid, I had walked from my neighborhood in Northeast DC to my aunt’s house in Southeast and met a shoe cobbler. His shop was run out of the basement of his house and he had a sign saying simply “Shoe Repair”. I don’t remember how, but I ended up stopping at his store and talking to him about what he did. This conversation led to his offer of teaching me to fix shoes. For a few weeks, he taught me a little about repairing shoes and for years I saw shoes in a different way than most people. I came to appreciate shoes that were stitched versus those merely glued or cemented together. Stitched shoes, by the way, is an older method of making shoes. It is stronger, more expensive, somewhat outdated, and although most of you are probably wearing glued rubber (even if the uppers may be leather or leather-like)–the highest quality of shoes will still be stitched. I liken a good pair of shoes crafted by hand to older, well-researched systems of martial arts. Arts can be thrown together without much thought or they can can be fused and forged into the strongest steel. Although many arts are indeed outdated and impractical, nothing beats a well-researched, well-trained, experienced fighter. And I am saying this to include MMA fighters. While you may have a “complete” set of skills because you know technique on the ground as well as on your feet–a master stand up fighter or master ground fighter will murder most “complete” guys who do some stand up, some grappling any day.

But that is a conversation for another day. Back to the topic.

The cobbler (I’ve forgotten his name, my apologies) first taught me a few simple repairs. Like the Sifu who teaches his students a few self-defense moves and a punch or two and a kick or two–then later get to the traditional method of learning–soon after I learned to add heel taps and glue soles, he taught me to repair shoes from the ground up. This involved actually pulling a pair of shoes apart, into several pieces, and then showing me how the shoe was constructed (there are many, many variations to building a shoe–stitch patterns and all). Once I saw how the shoe was put together, we rebuilt those shoes until we ended up with a very clean pair of shoes which probably looked how those shoes looked when the owner first purchased them. Adding the years and years of wear and various stains and polishes, the shoe was aged, yet dignified. The shoe showed some signs of being older, but I still remember the imperfections in the shoes’ upper leather, while the sole and heels and shoestrings were brand new. And let me tell you, although we live in a disposable, throwaway society–repair a pair of shoes over two decades and take good care of them, you will have a much nicer set of kicks than anything you can buy at the store. You learn to appreciate shoes because you know what kind of work goes into them. Shoes mold to fit your feet over time, and two men wearing the same size will not experience the same level of comfort if they switch each other’s shoes. Finally, I learned at a young age how a well-crafted pair of shoes can make you feel. Forget your Air Jordan’s; I’m talking about grown man shoes that will make you feel like a million bucks.

Martial arts can be cookie-cutter, like those purchased in a store that look like what everyone on the street is wearing. Or they can be built like a craftsman’s best work, molded and shaped by years and years of wear, repair and rebuilt over time. In 20 years, the guy who bought his shoes from Walmart has forgotten about his machine-made, generic shoes. Every other year or so, he is trying to break in a new pair of shoes he neither has an attachment to nor an appreciation for. But the guy who has stuck to the same pair for the same period of time has a pair of shoes that no one in the world can understand and feel comfortable in. His shoes are strong, they were built with patience and attention, they have character, and are just as much a part of the guy wearing them as they have a unique identity to what everyone else has.

The martial artist who learns his art in the way the cobbler teaches it also has a different understanding of the arts. To one student, the art is simply a set of techniques, forms, and concepts his teacher picked up along the way. He has no strong understanding the art; he only knows how to quote maxims, give the names of terms and concepts in Mandarin or Cantonese. But he has not internalized the art, he surely can’t apply 90% of what he can only demonstrate on a willing opponent. On the other hand, the student whose teacher is like the cobbler didn’t jump right into forms and useless terminology from day one. He spent months working on footwork. He learned only two or three hand techniques that didn’t quite make sense for months at a time. He may have had to wait several months before learning traditional forms. He spent his time training and using his techniques on opponent, rather than learning concepts and how to pimp a form to win tournaments. He may only have a very streamlined lineage, rather than one that includes multiple teachers, seminars, and certificates. In the end, the cobbler’s student only knows half the number of skills and forms that the Walmart Sifu’s student knows. But what he knows, he knows well–and can apply it on a resisting, combative opponent. On top of that, the cobbler’s method of teaching the art ensured a more complete study; leading to a better understanding and more appreciation.

Arts can be taught by simply having students mimic the teacher, which is perhaps the most common method of teaching. I show you, you do it, you practice it, you demo it for me–you know it. Or the art can be deconstructed; even using the same technique. Teacher shows it to the student, but isolating one piece of the technique at a time. Practice what the only right hand is doing. Practice what only the left hand is doing. Practice only the block, the grab, the footwork. Isolating the footwork into parts (first do this, then do that/practice this/practice that). Practice the variations. Practicing the technique under fail/success stress. Practice the technique 1,000 times before teaching the next technique. Very few students can stomach this style of study. And even fewer teachers are willing to put their students through this type of study.

Your system can be deconstructed like a pair of shoes for a cobbler’s apprentice. Rather than just having students pay to practice “Monkey see, Monkey do”, try dissecting your techniques, piece by piece. Practice and understand each part. Why does this technique work this way? Can it be improved? Can it be beaten? When should the technique be used? When should it NOT be used? When you are using the technique, what is the opponent expected to be doing? What if the opponent does NOT do it? Then what? What if the technique was used on you? What can you teach the student to do, to counter this technique? Is there a way to apply or execute this technique so that it can not be countered or stopped? What if you do not have the time or room or conditions to use the technique? Have you even thought of this:  What are the ideal situations that your techniques should be or should not be used? How about opponents? What if your opponent were not from your system? What if the opponent used boxing punches? Tae Kwon Do kicks? Grappling techniques? What if you punched, and instead of blocking (as most of our techniques expect the opponent to do), he ducks instead?

Now, here is some homework… Answer these questions for everything you teach your students. This is how you understand your Kung Fu like a cobbler. Because I assure you, the cobbler knows every situation and variation to repairing shoes. Do you understand your martial art in this fashion?

Something to think about.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.