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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