Master Ip Taught Everyone Differently…

25 09 2016

Something about the evolution of martial arts styles should be discussed among Kung Fu folks… the argument that leads to fractured lineages and disputes among classmates and training brothers. It is this:

We must understand that styles evolve and change, and anyone who is committed to promoting the system is free and qualified to do so.

What an arrogant and misguided notion for one classmate to lay claim to a system and deny his own classmates the privilege of enjoying it themselves. Most disputes among the same members of a lineage originate with this. There are many paths up a mountain, and how foolish to think that the path you walked or discovered is the only legitimate path up that mountain. However, we have seen through many controversies in the Chinese martial arts, men who once called each other “brother” challenging each other’s legitimacy in public–even claiming that they hold the only “true” teaching of their beloved system and/or teacher. A good example of this is to watch the Wing Chun controversies, where men from the same Master–yet differing periods–claim their own training brothers to be “incomplete” or illegitimate experts of that style. Men will say these things, even when they’ve witnessed with their own two eyes–that classmate training and devoting himself to the system. Perhaps one of the most offensive accusations to make on a classmate is to challenge a classmate publicly about their qualifications and knowledge. The only thing worse, is to do so in private–among outsiders to your system.

So what causes this betrayal? Why do people who once loved and liked each other do this? Is it ego?

I believe it is not as deep. Most of the time, I believe those who sit on all sides of such arguments truly believe they are right. In the Filipino Arts, I have seen generations of one Master separate and disassociate with each other simply because each believed he was in the best generation or the favorite student. It reminds me of when my own grandfather died, I immediately rushed to his house to “protect” his belongings from my cousins–who came to retrieve pictures, favorite items like his watches, trophies and awards… It was my father’s words that made me realize how foolish I had been. He told me that each of my cousins were entitled to the same sentimental items I treasured and that we all mourned and wanted a piece of him to remember him by. I foolishly believed that I was his favorite grandson. Days later, after the funeral–through conversations with my cousins I realized that my grandfather made ALL of us feel like we were the favorite grandsons. It’s what grandfathers do. They love us, and teach us, and tell us how we acted or looked just like our fathers at our age. They give us stories and anecdotes from their past in the hopes that we learn from their experiences and become more successful than they were. Is this not what a Kung Fu teacher does? Motivate, teach and protect us? Make each student feel like he or she was “Master” quality material? In my generation, we had one older brother, Sifu Craig Lee, who seemed to be the perfect Jow Ga specimen–his skill was flawless, and all of the younger guys wanted to do forms and fight as well as he could. When I trained, I would look in the mirror and try to emulate him as much as possible. Sifu would come around after class to see me training, sweating my ass off, and tell me, “Keep training because one day, you’re going to be just like Craig…” Forget Bruce Lee–us boys wanted to fight like Craig. Well I would discover, years after my Sifu died, that Sifu told us all that we would become just like Craig. I often heard a complaint that Sifu showed favoritism–but that’s what good teachers do. They make each student feel like he was the favorite. In the case of that FMA Master, it was just that. He told each Master under him that he was a Grandmaster quality fighter, and unfortunately when he died–each guy tried to step up and claim to be the ONE Grandmaster. Just like grandfathers, if he did his job right–each of us will grow up feeling special.

Yesterday while online, I saw yet another example of family disputes stemming from misunderstanding. The students of several Wing Chun Masters were bickering about whose version of Wing Chun was truer to late Grandmaster Yip Man’s. A neutral poster attempted to solve the dispute by saying that “Ip Man taught everyone differently…”  He had made a great point. If a master has done his job right, he will teach everyone differently. No one says that Kung Fu should only be done one way. Only fools believe that. It is like the argument among English speakers about who has an accent. Aussies tell Americans they talk funny. Texans tell Bostonians they talk funny. Californians believe they speak plain old English, but New Yorkers and Brits have accents. And so on. But the reality is that everyone speaks English, and depending on where you’re from and what your background is–each will speak that language in their own way. Kung fu is no different. One man joins a school at 40 years old having been athletic his entire life. His classmate, an 18 year old overweight boy, joins the school the same month. Both will learn the same system, but do their Kung Fu differently than a small girl who joined when she was 6 and is now 17. All will be different than a 35 year old security guard who joined the school to enhance his skills for his job–as they will from the 50 year old student who joined just to lose weight. Are any of these students doing a lesser version of their Sifu’s art? Will any of them be unqualified to teach their Sifu’s art in ten years just because he learned differently than his/her training brothers? Sifu may have taught each student according to their attributes, their reason for studying, and what that Sifu felt would benefit the student most. Yip Man taught over many decades, and he taught many, many students. Of course he taught different students and different generations differently. But are they, or are they not, all Yip Man students?

And there is yet another dynamic to this discussion. A Kung Fu master who has dedicated his life to the furthering and improvement of the system will himself evolve. A Sifu who sees Kung Fu in his 50s the same way he saw Kung Fu in his 20s has wasted 30 years of his life. When we are young, we have our biases, our insecurities, and perhaps many flaws. As a 23 year old school owner, I was somewhat hot headed and a very selfish teacher. I can admit now that I was not a good teacher then. My mind at the time was one three things–tournament fighting, women, and money. I drove sports cars, drank in bars, womanized, and would fight regular guys who didn’t stand a chance–just to brag that I had done so. As a result, I alienated some martial arts friends who had outgrown me, and lost students who felt I represented the art poorly. I did. I have known martial artists who sold drugs, scammed people out of money, sold pornography, owned strip clubs–you name it. Over time, most of us have changed and outgrew our ignorant selves and became teachers the community could admire. Some did not. Many are still teaching. A good teacher will offer an evolving art if you stick with him through the generations. I’ve known Sifus who have talked students out of going to college in order to stay home and “be a Kung Fu man”, as if this were all one needed to survive in the modern world. I’ve seen Sifus who have lured young men away from home to provide free labor in struggling martial arts schools while they lined their pockets up with what little money was made. We cannot blame a man for his past–but if he has not evolved 20 years later and is still doing the same thing, there is a major problem. As a result, the martial arts I taught when I was 23 is vastly different, and with a different philosophy, than the martial arts I taught at 43.

The same goes for technique. A Sifu who teaches in his 20s has not seen much nor experienced much. The art he passes in his classes will be superficial and under-researched. This is not to say that the quality of the Kung Fu is poor. The Kung Fu knowledge is just not going to be profound. But every decade or so, his art should have evolved into newer versions; Sifu has seen the art he teaches in action through his students. He will tweak things here and there. He may modify what techniques are in his curriculum–or how those techniques are applied. A Sifu who comes from a city without much competition may teach an uninspired, unchanged art–but when he relocates to a larger city where his students are now competing against many other styles, his system should include new test results and modifications. He should even have alternative applications that did not exist when his art was not being challenged by these strange systems. Perhaps in China, the art was aesthetically pleasing–but when it got to Taiwan, the Sifu needed to urbanize his Kung Fu to deal with muggers armed with knives and guns. When Sifu arrived in America, he needed to arm his students to deal with western boxers and bigger, taller opponents than in both China and Taiwan. So students in China look at Taiwan brothers and wonder why their Kung Fu looks strange. Both Chinese students and Taiwanese students are looking at Sifu’s American students thinking, “What the heck is that? Sifu didn’t teach that stuff!”  Arts evolve. As the master ages, he will add new knowledge and experience. He may modify his Kung Fu to match the needs of different students. His training methods may change with newly developed technology and trends. But aren’t they all legitimate?

And if Kung Fu was all supposed to stay intact, shouldn’t we all be doing the same art that was created hundreds of years ago–rather than the many styles we see today? Food for thought.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

Rethinking Kung Fu Footwork (Lessons from the FMAs)

17 09 2016

Today’s post is brought to you, compliments of your Southeasternly neighbor, the Filipino Martial Arts (FMAs). In case you are one of the few who have never been exposed to the Filipino Martial Arts, take a look on YouTube at it. The term “Filipino martial arts” can refer to any number of styles from the Philippines ranging from weapons-based styles–which we are known for (I’m speaking as a Filipino right now)–to boxing arts, to our own lineages of Chinese martial arts, which have evolved in the Philippines for the last few centuries into arts with Chinese names but little semblance to their origin. A few characteristics that you may find with the Filipino arts that are quite unlike those of other countries:

  1. Filipino arts traditionally have no forms. Most Filipino arts are sparring-based, and this is perhaps the main difference that makes FMAs unique. Because of the emphasis on sparring, many of the practices that restrict fighting ability do not exist in the FMA. For example, while a gripe about TCMAs is that tournaments lack fighting divisions–most Filipino tournaments are sparring tournaments that do not have forms divisions
  2. Filipino practitioners are not bound by tradition or strict adherence to custom. The grouping of techniques into stick/blade/empty hand is blurred. Often styles will start out teaching empty hand techniques and then draw a knife. FMA practitioners will spar stick versus knife, two weapons versus one, one opponent versus two, etc. The unpredictability of the streets is brought into classroom training
  3. FMA systems are created and practiced by the common man, rather than isolated groups of monks and warriors
  4. Every new generation of FMAs will evolve from the last. Teachers are not expected to keep curriculums and techniques intact. Nearly every school owner has created his own method, although he may keep the name of his teacher’s art–innovation and blending is acceptable and encouraged
  5. The practice of challenging is not frowned upon in the Filipino arts. A teacher who does not have challenges under his belt is not considered “polite”, he is considered “inexperienced”. While many masters will talk of past teachers and classmates–Filipino teachers often speak of sparring partners and rivals
  6. Speaking of rivals, many masters’ rivals are not lifelong enemies as in other styles; rivals often become co-founders, friends, or even the inspiration for a whole new art. Two good examples of such are the rivalry between US-based, late pioneers Angel Cabales and Leo Giron–whose rivalry lasted a lifetime and history is peppered with many matches (which exists even to this day); and Katatapado, a Filipino long-stick system created just to defeat Eskrima, the dominant weapons art of the Philippines
  7. Emphasis on footwork rather than stance work. In fact, most FMA styles do not have stances

FMA styles are almost the opposite of the Chinese arts, but some of those differences can be used to benefit Kung Fu fighters. Let’s explore some of them:

FMA footwork is similar to boxing footwork, in that FMA styles are more mobile that our northernly neighbors. This practice of being in perpetual motion is considered “alive” feet, versus “dead” feet that are heavy and flat footed. This may first appear to put fighters at a disadvantage because of a lack of stability. However, because of the heavy presence of blades, including the possibility for blades to be produced during a fight–FMA fighters are light footed other than times that power is needed for finishing blows. There are no set stances in most styles, so students practice attacking/advancing, retreating/withdrawing, side-stepping/flanking as much as a Kung Fu student would practice stances. Footwork is also heavily integrated with weapons practice. While stance training and footwork is considered a “beginner’s” skill in Kung Fu–even advanced FMA students practice footwork every class. This emphasis on movement does tire out the fighter more, but also produces a more agile, evasive, quicker, and fit fighter–with quickers reflexes. Watch a few rounds of Eskrima sparring and you will see how the emphasis on movement and speed can heighten the senses of your students. How can this be integrated with Kung Fu? Limit stance holding to lower ranking levels, but once strength is built in your students’ legs–switch your emphasis to movement. The goal is to make your students difficult to escape from, but equally difficult to catch. It is not necessary to neglect strength training or other skills, but giving your fighters the gift of superior mobility will insure that they will catch and opponent they are attacking while being difficult to hit when attacked. Footwork, then, is not to be an additional skill; footwork should be an integrated skill. Meaning, there is no “Footwork” Day. Every day is footwork day. Each time you drill a skill–whether you are training punches, blocks, even dagger and sword skills–find a way to incorporate footwork.

Also, let us say here, that in speaking of “mobility”, we are not trying to get Kung Fu students to practice while doing the “Ali Shuffle”. It’s so much more than that! By mobility, we mean that your students should not practice in a fighting stance where they are a sitting duck. Look at the average Kung Fu class, you will see lines of students in a perfect formation. Everyone has a dot they are standing on, and no one leaves that dot. Whether doing jumping jacks, punching, kicking–everyone in class has a spot, and that student is encouraged to stay in his place. When fighting, there is a little movement, but it is unnatural as Kung Fu students are trained to set down in stances and not move. A sniper-fighter’s dream opponent. (Edit: In case you were wondering, a sniper-fighter is an aggressive attacker who attacks quickly and violently) Train without movement, your students will find much difficulty when it is time to move, regardless if he is attacking or defending. When training for mobility, you must decide whether the technique you are training is being used as an attack, a defense or a flanking technique. For example, the basic punch in the Kung Fu classroom can either be done in a Horse, Bow, or sparring stance, and that’s about it. Yet in the FMA classroom, the punch is designated an attacking-punch (your student is the attacker), a defensive punch (your student is punching when attacked), or a flanking punch (student steps off-line and punches, whether initiating the attack or not)–and each has it’s own footwork movements. Make this one change to how you run your classes–within months you will see a great improvement in sparring ability.

For the sake of space, let’s end here, but I’d like to give you a few things to think about:

  • footwork can be used to lure the opponent into traps. a mongoose attack, for example, named for the Philippine mongoose, uses a retreat to get the opponent to follow–and then attack when the opponent is mid-stride while following you
  • advancing on the opponent can be more than just moving forward to get close to the opponent. advance on the opponent to upset his balance (difficult to keep balance while moving backward), run the opponent into unstable ground (off sidewalks, etc.), or into barriers (walls, furniture, or the ropes of a boxing ring)
  • keeps even an opponent with the strongest stance off-balance, as your movement can force him to leave his stance and follow or move. this makes him vulnerable to attack
  • cut off an opponent’s movement. study movement, and plan two or three steps ahead so that if he continues in the direction he is moving–he moves right into the direction of your next attack
  • can be used to make an opponent miss. practice what you can do if the opponent misses an attack. this MUST be incorporated into training. many styles plan for follow ups if the opponent blocks, but what about throwing an attack, allowing the opponent to block you, then waiting for his counter, and then firing on him after you make him miss? in the FMA this is called “counter-the-counter”, something I have not seen in any style besides the Filipino art other than Wing Chun–and even Wing Chun does not have techniques to make an opponent miss his attack
  • for those who enjoy fighting from a strong stance–you could use movement to set up that strong launching position. move to force the opponent into a place where you want him. land into position while he is still moving by moving quicker–and then firing on him as he arrives to a position you were waiting for

There is still much more to add to this subject, but we will put up another article in the near future. We hope you found something useful! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

In case you forgot to take a look at the link I embedded above, here is a clip of a tournament. Enjoy!


Kung Fu’s “Missing Link”, pt II (True Kung Fu Tournaments)

16 09 2016

The folks over at New York Sanda have an article appropriately entitled “Why Can’t Johnny Fight?”  When you get a chance, I recommend you mosey over there and take a look at their blog–which have lots more good information besides just that article. I enjoyed the article, which is addressing a theme we repeat often on this site–that Kung Fu people have to engage in combat and combat training more than we have been doing. Every TCMA community has its heavy hitters. But the problem is that each local Chinese martial arts community only has one or two. Now if you compare the percentage of Kung Fu schools to other styles that are known for being superior in fighting and self defense, you’ve got to admit that we are terribly lacking. And please spare us the speech about martial arts not being for fighting (or the one I like so much about you having nothing to prove). You know and we know it. We just don’t talk about it.

In a nutshell, Sifu Ross is referring to this tournament, called the “Tru to Form” format which in its defense is an attempt to get Kung Fu fighters to use the techniques in their respective systems in fighting. Sifu Kristoff Clarke gave a passionate speech at a tournament that went viral in the martial arts community a few years back, and most people agree with him. When you compare competitors at a tournament, very few show any signs of the systems they are supposed to be representing. Why do you suppose–if these arts are indeed practical–do Kung Fu stylists do boxing, Muay Thai and Jujitsu when they fight? Is it because those arts don’t work? I don’t think so. I think it’s something much simpler; in my opinion, many of the folks who are teaching have not explored their arts enough to see, not if they work, but how they work.

Let’s use an analogy. We have Mike, a landloving beach nut who’s never actually been to the beach. He’s read all kinds of books about what goes on the beach. He collects all sorts of fishing rods, swimwear, surfboards, and what not. He has watched all the movies about divers, swimmers, tunes into the Olympics, can describe all types of swimming strokes and marine life… you name it. Only thing is, Mike has never been to the beach. He did go to the river one time, got in and got water up his nose. Never again, he swears, this shit was not fun–plus, this isn’t like, a real beach. The river sucks. He is so enamored with the beach, he listens only to the Beach Boys, walks around town in his swim shorts and goggles, and will argue how that one Navy Seals movie is fake because the actors they used aren’t even real sailors. He is as true a Beach Bum as one has ever known.

But one day, Mike gets to fulfill his dream. He moves to the ocean and opens a swim school, which also has a well-equipped beginner-to-pro fishing program. One day, he takes his advanced swimming class to the ocean for a popular race.

Not only does Mike’s students LOSE the race, half of them nearly drown.

(Story over)

So what went wrong? Did Mike not study the right swimmers? Were his students the wrong build for swimming? Was the pesky rules of the damned tournament? Can a swim tournament really determine if a guy is a good swimmer or not? Mike not only knows the Back Stroke, the Doggy Paddle–he’s made up seven more strokes! He studied all the masters!

Back to reality, let me just say that every martial arts style has its merits. They all work. The techniques can be applied against an opponent in a real match or fight and protect the fighter who trains in them. But the missing link is that, like Mike–the teacher himself has not used these techniques in even simulated combat, so how is he going to give proper instruction in using them? Mike knew how to swim and fish–but since he had never gotten the water to do it himself, since he never felt the pull of a fish tugging at his bait–he can’t teach a fishing student the difference between a nibble and a bite, or a hard current that felt like a fish. Yes, you don’t have to fight to know a technique, but there are many details about that technique you could never teach a student if you have no experience using them yourself. Monkey See, Monkey Do is the wrong way to teach self-defense. If you’ve ever wondered why you could take three years of high school Spanish and not be able to order dinner–yet a three year old could spend the summer with Abuela and come home speaking fluent Spanish–you’d understand. That difference is this:  There is a difference between learning to perform an art and learning to use an art. I can teach all the vocabulary in a language, but until you get into the trenches and actually use that language you’ll only be good at impressing nonspeakers and friends who can’t tell the difference between Spanish and Portuguese (or Kung fu and Karate).

Here’s some food for thought… It is understandable that many of you have schools and have never fought using these arts. You may even be a fighter, but you drew from Karate and Boxing because perhaps you know your Sifu was not a fighting guy. Some of you use your athletic prowess, your size, or your reputation to succeed in fighting or avoid fighting altogether. If you truly want your students to evolve your art further than your teacher, or even further than you took it yourself–here is a simple, but difficult suggestion:  You must extract techniques and concepts from your system, train your students in them (not just teach, but actually train and drill them), then throw them in the ocean with non-Kung Fu fighters to see your system in action. Let’s be realistic; most of you won’t go enter tournaments or sparring Round Robins at 45-50 years old. Understandable. But don’t fool your students the way our hypothetical friend Mike fooled his students. Put them in front of foreign styles and systems, have them do what you taught them, study the action–and accept the outcome of the matches, whether your guys win or lose. Perhaps the #1 reason Kung Fu guys don’t go to Karate tournament isn’t because those tournaments have rules–Kung Fu tournaments have rules. It isn’t because tournaments aren’t “real” fights. It isn’t because they can’t use deadly tournaments. It’s because they are afraid–just as you are afraid. Not afraid you’ll get hurt, you are afraid of losing. You don’t want to have students become discouraged, and bring shame on your school and/or your style. You don’t want students to feel like their training is a waste of time; and they now have the same fear their Sifu had. It’s time for that to end. You don’t need boxing. Sure, there are many things you can learn from boxers. They have a well-developed training regimen that could be used to enhance traditional martial arts. Just don’t rely on it for your combat readiness. Take the time and explore your system deeper. Be more courageous and get out there with strangers and bang–or put your students out there. And important stage in your growth as a Sifu is to develop your own ideas in the art you study and actually study how it stands up against other ideas and styles. Once you’ve seen the results, don’t make excuses why they failed or fell short. Just adopt what you’ve observed and they’ve learned. Modify, test, execute. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So perhaps your art has that missing link. Don’t pass that handicap down to your students.

Sifu Clarke is an old friend of mine. When I met him, he had challenged my Si Hing to a sparring match, and then ended up training with us for a while. He is a sincere, dedicated martial artist. I get his point. Unfortunately, many Sifus and Masters who get his point just don’t have the knowledge and experience base to represent his concept well. Traditional Chinese Martial Arts has been around too long to be a laughing stock, so I expect this next generation to come out with a vengeance and make these arts look good–without “sleeping with the enemy”…  😉


Thank you for visiting the Dean Chin Jow Ga Federation. Kristo

Quick Tip for Kung Fu Practitioners

11 09 2016

No long article today. Just some quick tips for my Kung Fu brothers and sisters, that if you incorporate them, will help you on your martial arts journey towards self-defense and combat dominance:

  • Train your skills and techniques in sets of 50 if you are a beginner, 100 if an intermediate, and 500 if you are advanced enough to teach classes. Far too often, Kung Fu practitioners are not familiar enough with their systems that when called to do anything outside a form or choreographed, prearranged demonstration–they fumble. I see it all the time on YouTube and in demonstrations. Martial arts should be second nature, skills should flow from the hands as easily as a well-rehearsed, memorized song. When an opponent strikes at you, your response should be immediate, automatic, and without thought
  • Train invidual techniques with resistance. That means make the use of bicycle innertubes, small hand weights, weighted wrist weights and ankle weights, iron rings
  • Break your form down into specific techniques and applications. You should know exactly what is in your forms, rather than only knowing the routine and “knowing what each move is for”. “Each move” is something you should train individually and be able to execute when needed–not demonstrate, execute. For example, in my system, our first form Siu Fook Fu–I have 55 techniques and applications I have extracted from this form. Those 55 techniques make up the curriculum I teach my students stretched over 3 beginner levels. They fight with these techniques in sparring, we use them for self-defense, and even have techniques to be used against weapons attacks and multiple opponents. Gain more value from the art you have dedicated your study to by reinvestigating and reverse engineering your Kung fu
  • Identify all moves for your system into “Attacks”, “Counterattacks”, and “Self defense”. Very few of us actually do this. We practice forms, we practice some skills, we exercise, we might even do choreographed techniques–but when we spar, we often limit ourselves to kickboxing-like practice. If you assign everything in your arsenal a specific use, your practice and training can be more directed and efficient. Attend any tournament and watch Kung Fu students in action. Everyone will use the same Jab/Cross/Roundhouse/Side kick/Backfist/Spin kick set of skills to spar with. But look in their forms, you’ll find that most of the techniques in the form are not used in sparring at all, and most of what they do in sparring is NOT in the forms!
  • Rather than see your form’s techniques as “defense from a punch/defense from a grab”, why not look at actual self-defense needs? Take a look at mugging and attacks caught on video, and see how your system can be applied in those situations? Check out this video. How would your forms handle such an attack? And trust me, although your Sifu may not have taught you specifically a defense for it, I’m willing to bet your forms have some techniques that are perfect to be used against it. You just have to dig a little deeper, young Jedi.


  • Here is a revolutionary idea that should be common sense:  Practice your techniques out of sequence. If you break down each technique into mini techniques, small, movable parts–you can mix and match blocks, grabs, twists, strikes, kicks, gouges–whatever–with those from other techniques or even forms, and create whole new uses. My Sifu did this, and I believe this made his Kung Fu more useful for those of use who studied with him. Although you have the freedom to add boxing, karate, etc., to your styles, simply by rearranging techniques, you can give your techniques a whole new life…
  • Finally, rather than cross-train, cross-fight. It’s no secret that I studied other arts besides Jow Ga. I’ve also boxed, competed in point karate, Olympic style Tae Kwon Do, and study Judo. However, most of my experience is used to make my Jow Ga more capable of fighting a Karate fighter or grappler or boxer. Each art you experience has a rhythm and a mindset. It’s almost like learning the habits and mannerisms of someone who speaks another language. Once you pick up how a boxer moves or how a Tae Kwon Do competitor fights, you don’t need to learn how to box to apply your art against him. You simply learn enough about him that you can figure a way to use your Kung fu to beat him. Going to point karate tournaments only hurts your Kung Fu if you drop your Kung Fu to start point fighting. Bring all experience and learning back to your art, and this strengthens your art. There is no need to mix, just understand.

Hopefully, you will find some usefulness in today’s article. This was originally going to be several articles, but I decided to just lay it all down (however simplified I made it) here. Perhaps at a later time, we can explore each tip further.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.


Why Fat Guys Make the Best Sifus

10 09 2016

I had started to write this article about a year ago, and stopped because I didn’t want to offend. Over the last few months, I tried again and again to finish it–looking for a way to get my point across without hurting some feelings. Recently, while reflecting on my Sifu’s own unpolitically correct self–he said things as they were, but one thing we knew… He’d never tell you a lie. Sifu would curse in class, tell someone to take a shower before training, tell another to wash her hair, throw you out of class if he smelled alcohol (RIP JE), give you your money back, even jump on instructors in front of their students for not training enough or telling advanced students that beginners are catching up on them. He once laughed after class and told one my Si Hings “Well, Barrington (a beginner) really kicked your ass today…”

So, I scrapped every word I had written, changed the title… and here goes.

My Sifu once told our class that “Fat guys make the best Sifus”. This was right after fussing at me and my brothers for giggling after a classmate had fallen while doing kicks. He stated something to this effect a few times, and I am constantly reminded of what he meant as an instructor myself. One of the most profound statements indeed. I believe after you hear me out, you may agree.

Quite often, we celebrate athleticism and “natural ability”. We love great physiques, and especially admire those who seem to be born with beauty and ability. As teachers, we speak of silly ideas like being “built for Northern/Southern styles”, as if a short, fat man cannot learn Tien Shan Pai–or a tall, skinny man couldn’t learn Hung Gar. I recall a former employer of mine–a Tae Kwon Do master–instructing our sales staff to target soccer games for recruiting because he liked the flexibility and agility of soccer players and how it transferred skills to TKD. As a tournament competitor, I was often approached by coaches who wanted me to join their schools to go pro so that they could take credit for the instruction I had already received under my Sifu and Si Hings. In the modern martial arts community, I’ve seen jujitsu teachers at my son’s wrestling meets to recruit boys for their MMA teams. Why all of this? I believe it is laziness, really. So much easier to train a student who is walking through the door with endurance, flexibility, strength, and other physical attributes. As a boxer, I’ve heard trainers say that it was easier to pack muscle on a skinny guy for power, than it was to slim down an overweight novice and train him to become quick. Teachers pride themselves often on students who come to them after years of football, soccer, gymnastics, even dance. I get it. They are easier to teach. They are a pleasure, because you don’t have to build strong students–just mold athletes.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the fat guy. He has just as much enthusiasm for the arts as the basketball players. He watched the same movies, bought the same books to learn from, stood in the mirror as a youth throwing the same moves, ran outside after Black Belt Theater to copy the same actors. But the fat guy is harder to train. He is winded easier. He’s not as limber. He has two left feet often and can’t remember forms. He needs more breaks. But like fat guys when dating, he also has fewer distractions. Girls like the handsome boys, but the handsome boys know lots of girls. The athletic guy takes frequent breaks from Kung Fu training because it’s football season and the coach has increased practice to 5 days a week. He’s also playing flag football, he can’t attend Chinese New Year because it’s the playoffs, and he can’t attend sparring class because his basketball team has a series of games on Saturday. Very often, the fat guy isn’t into any other sport, so Kung Fu is his only outlet. He may be frustrated because he can’t seem to catch up with the skinnier guys. Everyone is already doing splits, and he’s still trying to master the Horse Stance. They are drilling Swallow Tail kicks, and he can barely do the Tornado kick. He is also self-conscious about performing forms in front of a group… so he practices when no one is watching… a lot. And do you know what happens? In time, the fat guy isn’t so fat anymore. Sure, he’ll probably never have washboard abs. He may still be a little chubby. Perhaps he did slim down, but he’s still young. Wait till he’s in his 30s, and he won’t have that build by then; he’ll be back. At some point in his training career–and every chubby guy I’ve ever known who stuck with the art has done this–he will pass the athletic guys in skill and ability, to the surprise of even himself. You ever see the guy at the tournament who everyone loves because he “doesn’t move like most chubby guys”? The one who was a big guy, but he is just as quick, just as strong, just as smooth as any pro. I’m talking about the Sammo Hung type. The Butterbean. One of my favorite students and best fighters to this day, is a young man named Marcos, whom we named “Butter Burrito” because I don’t think any of his classmates could beat him. He was limber, fast, wise, big, AND strong. But he weighed over 300 lbs and built like a Rhino. Among my Jow Ga seniors, we had a few big guys as our best fighters–Tehran Brighthapt and “Kung Fu” Joe Colvin to name a few. They got there because they had to work twice as hard to become equal in skill with their classmates, and in the process many of them had passed them.

And this led to a type of wisdom that many athletic martial artists won’t have. I’ve known some guys who have been fit their entire lives, tell overweight students to “suck it up” when their backs and hips and knees started hurting. They judge students by their waistlines rather than actual ability and knowledge. Many have even gone so far as judge character and discipline, based on someone’s fitness level! Many Sifus who were once overweight–including those who still struggle with their weight–are more empathetic, more compassionate, and more aware of the challenges of those who are not as fit when they first put on a uniform. This includes adult students who may have old injuries, children who just have coordination problems, older students, and male students with poor upper body strength. There are many Sifus who had it easy because of their natural ability and don’t know how hard it is to develop skill if one lacks athletic talent. Sadly, it does affect them as teachers because they only know how to mold students as they are. Lord help them if they get a student with two left feet! Martial arts teachers who have endured the same challenges as their students will know how to guide those students. They will understand how to inspire those who may be discouraged by physical limitations. They are patient, understanding teachers. And most of all, they can shape a beautiful, precious stone out of a plain, dusty rock. Those teachers who had to work harder, commit more time, and suffer many losses and humiliating defeats to gain skill in this art will be the best at teaching others how to do it.

Anyone can take a fit, strong, young healthy student and turn them into a champion. But the best skilled Sifus can take a scrawny, sickly, scaredy cat–and turn him into a Tiger. Those who know how hard it is to overcome obstacles often make the best teachers to show others the way. Some teachers are good for showing; others are good for growing. Good teachers can take your high school athlete and make him into a good forms competitor. GREAT teachers will do the same with the school nerd. Strive to be that guy. And when you look into the classroom at the chubby student who can barely do pushups, kick to his waist level, or hold a horse stance like everyone else–give him a chance to show you what he’s made of. And don’t blink; he may end up becoming your school’s next champion.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

Traveling Lightly vs. The Hoarder

2 09 2016

In the journey towards perfection in the martial arts, whether one is a student or a teacher, there are two basic schools of thought:

  1. Those who travel lightly
  2. Those who try to bring the whole house in a suitcase

While they both have their merits, only one is a guarantee of success.

If you look at the development of Kung Fu styles, both modern and classical, you would notice that there are no original ideas in the Chinese martial arts. All styles, concepts, and systems originated from another style or teacher. In Jow Ga, we are a combination of Hung Ga, Choy Ga, and Northern Shaolin. However, our founders did not including the entire systems of Hung Ga, Choy Ga, and Northern Shaolin. On top of that, there were five founders, each having his own set of martial arts experiences. No doubt, some of them had exchanged with various teachers outside his own systems and picked up techniques, forms and ideas along the way. Yet, today, what modern Jow Ga practitioners have today represents only a fraction of what was collected and learned. Much of this knowledge was fused with other knowledge and new techniques, forms and ideas replaced older ones. Some of this new knowledge is condensed from the combination of several ideas. Ultimately, Jow Ga is not a “collection” of the three systems–but a concentrated, repackaged, fused combination of the three systems. Furthermore, downline from the founders–individual Sifus and sub-lineages of Jow Ga will be new concentrated versions of Jow Ga, based on the research, testing, and findings of each Sifu. Some will be repackaged classical Jow Ga–while others will contain knowledge from outside systems and influences.

Yet, rather than combine and concentrate all of their learning into a newer version of their knowledge, many teachers today do the opposiste; they leave entire forms intact, combine systems and techniques that are completely unrelated, and give their  students more than they could perfect. Instead of combining flour, eggs, oil, sugar and fruit to make a beautiful cake–those Sifus throw everything in the bowl and hand students all the ingredients, unmixed, unblended… Just a messy bowl full of strawberries, powder, whole eggs and oil drenched on the mix. For some, ego causes teachers to boast of knowing 50+ forms and systems. For others, I believe it is pure laziness of not investigating and developing enough. And for a most, teachers feel it disrespectful to change or combine what they learned into a homogenous, new creation. This last category, I believe has hurt the Chinese martial arts. It is both selfish and egotistical, to prevent self-expression. When a teacher bans proficient students from investigating their arts until skills leak into other learning, he is suppressing his student’s progress. In his own way, he is ordering students to remain a student forever, and never acknowledging that the student has progressed enough to know what to strip away and discard. He does not believe that the student is capable of determining for himself what piece of the art he will specialize in. Teach this art the way I taught you, and never develop a mind of your own.

I call these Kung Fu men “Kung Fu Hoarders”. They are collectors of new arts, new forms, new versions and techniques. They never allow the new information to blend with the old; to gain an identity of its own within their own repertoire. They never allow Hung Ga concepts to become applied towards their Choy Ga. They never use their Whipping power of Choy hands to enhance their Northern Shaolin punching. They never allow Northern feet to back up their Hung Ga. As a result, their Kung Fu knowledge is never internalized, but merely memorized. Looks good on paper, but in the frenzied confusion of a fight–very few of those skills will manifest themselves into actual, deliverable applied fighting skill.

We all know them. The guys who will pull you to the side to show you what Master So-n-So taught them, and they’ve got plenty. But they can never don the gloves and show you how this skill looks in real time. At demos, they impress others with their “vast knowledge of forms” from other systems. This is what they do, they’ve committed these things to memory and can recall anything for your viewing pleasure.

Unfortunately, this is not useful in the pursuit of Kung Fu perfection. We must remember that in order to perfect a skill, it must be practiced, used, thrown, executed an average of 10,000 times. Very few men reading this article has ever practiced anything ten thousand repetitions. This is why most people calling themselves “Master” are using the word as a title, rather than as a verb. One can be a master, or one can master a skill. Very few martial artists have the stomach to train anything in their art enough times to truly master it. The more you have in your arsenal, the longer you must train before approaching proficency–and even longer to approach mastery. There are those who travel lightly, combine skills, eliminate waste, perform enough research to fuse ideas and create new ones; they are the only ones who will most likely master what they know. The true masters of an art understand that in order to master a system, one does not have to master everything in the system–especially those who are studyings arts with multiple forms, weapons and skills. In the training and investigative process of ones own style–many cuts will be made. Forms and techniques will be eliminated; as well as strategies will be created and fine-tuned. Each generation of an art should not become more and more diluted.

This is the outcome of having too much in the curriculum; mediocrity. Sure, students will know up to 8 or 10 different weapons and 15 or so forms. But how much of this knowledge will be perfected? Can those students fight with superior, dominant skill, with all 8 weapons? Or will they only be able to demonstrate forms with them? Will the student’s skill be good enough to win a forms competition with any form in his arsenal? Or can he only demo the other forms, while only performing one or two to the best of his ability? Think about this, seriously and honestly… Are you really trying to perfect your systems or are you merely preserving what’s been picked up over the years? Can you honestly take everything in your skill base and bet the house on it against all comers? Or are you traveling with years and years of barely memorized forms, techniques you can only talk about, and fighting skill that has nothing to do with 99% of your curriculum?

Those who dare to let go of the unnecessary, will have a concentrated, potent skill set he honestly feels is the best around. Those martial artists have the time to devote to the best of their knowledge, and only the best of their knowledge. While others travel with everything their brains can hold–most likely, must do so with mediocrity. Quality over quantity. It is a very simple, but universal concept.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.