The Signature Worth More Than Gold

21 01 2017


Today, we will talk about a lover of art of writing, named George Foreman. George was a big, strong man. Known for his brute strength (he enjoyed boxing in his spare time), George loved calligraphy and studied all styles. Unlike many artists, George was able to move his money around and finance his love of calligraphy by getting a part time job prize fighting. This part time job he had forced him to wake up at 5 am to work out and occasionally travel to beat people up–but mostly he was able to spend his days practicing his calligraphy. Of the many things George enjoyed doing, the one thing he loved to write most was his name: “George Foreman, esquire”… “Love, Peace, and SOUL! –George Foreman”… “To Whom It May Concern, George Foreman”….

In fact, George loved writing his name so much, he named all of of sons “George Foreman”. There was George Foreman, Jr., George Foreman II, George Foreman III, and so on. And as any self-respecting calligrapher would do, George taught each boy how to write his name in the most beautiful way. Now, each son was born at a different time in George’s life. So when that child was old enough to learn to write, he was taught to sign in his name a little differently than the last son. Each son was taught to write in whatever style George was practicing at the time of his education. As the years passed, George’s signature was a little different as he developed more skill, acquired more knowledge, and changed his fancies. Each son, although they were all named George and had learned from the same loving father, slightly wrote his name differently than his brother. And on top of that, each son had his own ideas about how to write his name. Each boy loved his father, shared his father’s passion about writing, including relying on beating people up for income so he could spend his days writing his name.

Now the story takes a twist. George’s sons are all grown, but then each son names his sons “George Foreman”. Some of the sons teach their sons how to write; others send their sons to their father. In the end, we have in total, 21 men named “George Foreman”, and although they represent different generations, share the same name, drank from the same fountain, learned from the same source–each one writes his name slightly different from the next. And no one can duplicate exactly the (now) Grandfather’s signature.

End of story.

But translate this story to martial artists learning a style of fighting from their fathers instead of writing–we would have feuds, family fragments, brothers disowning each other, brothers denying each other–while everyone around them thinks to themselves, “But you all are named George, you all LOOK like your Dad, and you all write your name pretty much the same way!”  Boy, are we a nutty bunch.

From the outside in, most styles look pretty much the same. Of course there are nuances and differences, but if you took ten lineages of Wing Chun and put them in a room with ten lineages of Praying Mantis, ten lineages of Tae Kwon Do, and ten lineages of Choy Lay Fut–one could easily pick out who belonged to the generic groups of WC, PM, TKD, and CLF. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it, my Kung Fu brothers, but those “differences” are so minute you might as well classify each other by whose eyebrows is longer. One would push their perspective styles further if they actually celebrated the differences rather than bicker over them. Because like old George’s 20 sons and grandsons–they are all named George, and they have more in common than they do different to each other.

Each teacher of each lineage of each system will have his own purpose in the art. He will have his own specialties in the system. He will have his own goals. He will have his own strengths and weaknesses. He will fancy one part of the system, while another will prefer another. One may enjoy the lion dance, while another enjoys combat, and another likes short forms, and another prefers weapons. My uncle once chastized me for passing judgment on a cousin’s lifestyle by telling me that as long as they wish to remain a member of this family, we have PLENTY of room on this family tree. We must accept that anyone who does not wish harm or shame on the family should always be welcome at the table come dinner time. Plus, those differences actually makes our Kung Fu experience much richer. Imagine if students joined a school and system, but found that the Kung Fu was only done one way. If one of George’s sons was left handed, but George only allow his sons to write with the right hand… many of us run our schools this way. My way is the only way.

A full family tree with uncles and aunts who specialize in nearly everything a student could want to learn can only breed the best martial arts students. In my own lineage of Jow Ga, we have instructors who are police officers, former kickboxers, community activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, boxers, restaurateurs, actors, musicians, dancers, photographers, artists… you name it. Whether a student would like to talk to Kung Fu elders about careers or just their own unique take on the system–students have an entire community of Sifu with his or her own experiences with the art whether we are talking about Jow Ga expressed through the eyes of a fighter, a businessman, or community pillar. On top of that, each teacher learned Jow Ga in a different context than other family members. Some Sifu have only studied Jow Ga under our late Master Chin and have possibly a purer view of his art. Some came through other styles and express their Jow Ga with the influence of that previous art. Some Sifu have used their Jow Ga in the ring, others in streetfights, others while working security or as a police officer subduing criminals. Without a doubt, each of these Sifu have his own expression. Some of us learned From Master Chin as a young teacher in the 1960s and 70s, while others learned from him before his death in the 80s after experiencing martial arts over three decades. Some were big, strong men, while others were small and quick. Some were athletic, others used the art to live healthier. And each of these experiences gave the practitioner a different view and application of the Jow Ga.

Now fast-forward to the present time. A new student joins the art under one Sifu. He learns his Sifu’s special way of executing Jow Ga for several years, and is now himself a new Sifu. What’s next? Stop learning and go open a school? Join a different style and explore what else the TCMA community has to offer?

How about seek out Kung Fu uncles and aunts and learn their expressions of the same art. What a great way to dig deeper into the art you already paid your dues to, than to find out what others have discovered through the same style. There is so much in each system of Kung Fu, it is impossible to explore and develop everything. On one hand, you could go study the staff with your Si Bok who specialized in the staff, learn sparring with your Si Sook who was a great fighter, train with another Si Sook who was an excellent kicker. On another hand, you could communicate with one Si Bok who uses his Kung Fu to impact local politics and rescue at-risk children, another Si Bok who has learned to make a good living with creative ways to teach Kung Fu, and another Si Bok who uses his Kung Fu to teach weight control and another who uses it to teach healing.

I have long told my students here in California that my only regret as a Jow Ga Sifu is that I am too far from Washington, DC, to send my students to see their elder Kung Fu uncles–who have a very different experience as well as expression of the same art I teach. I truly believe that I have given my students the best Jow Ga I can, but it is still inferior to the Jow Ga I could give them if I augment my instruction with lessons from each of my seniors…

“The success of a CEO should be determined by the number of people he trained that can surpass him. If someone warns me about an employee who is trying to overstep me, I reply that I’m a teacher, and that’s the way it should be.”

— Jack Ma, April 2014

Bottom line, Kung fu family:  Don’t raise your students in a vacuum. Your system, whatever it is, has a family tree that is rich with valuable information. It is impossible for you to know all and be proficient at all. Tap into that bank vault of knowledge and bring those lessons to your students, so that they could reap the benefit of a large, close-knit family who can teach your students many ways to look at your respective systems, skills, you do not fancy, experiences you do not have. Jack Ma once said the goal of a teacher is to make sure that his students surpass him. So much wisdom in that. Bury the hatchet, swallow your pride, join hands with Kung Fu brothers you may have barely met or hadn’t seen in years, work with those distant Kung Fu relatives, exchange techniques, ideas and skills and give your students the most concentrated, potent martial arts experience you can. I have seen a family of Kung Fu schools from the same lineage, in the same city all die in separate martial arts schools because they did not work together. I’ve witnessed a once excellent Kung Fu school put out only the highest level of martial arts competitors now promote weak Sifus because the students had a falling out with their teacher. Five fingers spread apart can at most only make a temporary sting. But ball those fingers tightly into a watertight, airtight fist–and you can possibly break rocks with that same hand.

Every teacher of every generation of a system will have his own signature in that system. Be the teacher whose students can “write his name” 10,000 different ways.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.