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 It is stronger, more expensive, somewhat outdated, and although most of you are probably wearing glued rubber (even if the uppers may be leather or leather-like)–the highest quality of shoes will still be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 Although many arts are indeed outdated and impractical, nothing beats a well-researched, well-trained, experienced fighter.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.



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