Grandmasters, Founders, “Fathers” of Kung Fu… Blah, Blah, Blah!

5 12 2018

If you know me personally in real life or through social media, by now you may be aware that I started a sh*tstorm in the last few days. If not and you’re on Facebook, look me up by my real name “Mustafa” and add me. It’s a lot to take in, and some may say it’s pretty messy–even disrespectful. Whatever.

But now that I have your attention, let’s discuss something that needs to be talked about in the Chinese martial arts:  Titles and what they mean.

It will be impossible for me to write everything in one article, so this will be a series. We could possibly fill a series of books on the subject. As usual, it may hit a nerve with you because these are my opinion although I will state them as facts. You are free to disagree, leave me feedback, but just don’t slander me or my teacher and we can still be friends. 🙂

Here in America, it seems that more attention is given to politics and public relations than to skill. We are more likely to recognize someone’s genius by looking at whether we like them, have heard of them, know them personally–than we will by measuring their Kung Fu. And even when we “measure” their Kung Fu, we will not agree on what the definition of good Kung Fu actually means. Skill at forms? Knowledge of and display of customs and traditions? Fighting? And what kind of fighting? Mutual combat, organized matches, or street fights? More often than not, in the Chinese martial arts we measure a Sifu by things we’ve heard about rather than seen. Most of you who are reading this article will proclaim to the world that your Sifu’s fighting skill is impeccable although 99% of you have never seen your Sifu fight or fought him yourself. You will argue history and lineage while only listening to your Sifu’s stories and refuse to consider anyone else’s side. Ironically, American Kung Fu people are as close-minded about their martial arts as they are about their politics. One of the most common arguments and debates in TCMAs is because of disagreements about lineage, titles, and “Grandmastership”. This guy claims he has the most authentic art. That guy says beloved, belated Master wanted him to inherit the system. This guy learned the complete or correct system. These guys didn’t remember this guy ever coming to class. That guy can’t fight. And it goes on…

Politics and ideologies aside, I think one of the problems in the martial arts is the vagueness of the terms. I say I’m a master, this guy says he’s a Grandmaster, this guy says he founded his own thing so he’s automatically a Grand Wizard Multi Poo Bah… And probably the most overused, misunderstood, penile-retentive titles is Grandmaster. Due to time constraints and space, we will only discuss this one–and we will move on to the other terms at a later date. Regardless of the system, lineage, or art–fights over Grandmastership (who is the Grandmaster, who earned it, who declared it, is there even one, etc.) is by FAR the #1 topic.

So let’s define it. And remember, this is my blog, although I’ve named it for my lineage. My toys, my rules. What I say here does not reflect or represent the DC lineage or the Jow Ga system; it is merely my opinion. You may disagree. If you are a Jow Ga person, please feel free to pick up the phone and fuss at me because we are all family. I happen to handle constructive criticism–even corrections and chastisement–very well. I would welcome your input in the comments section after this article, both positive and negative.

What is a Grandmaster? There are two ways to answer the question, short and long. First, the short answer:

  • Create your own system. Many would argue that you are just a founder, though. If a 22 year old created his own system, can he be a Grandmaster? I don’t think so, he’s just a founder. But 50+ years later if the system is still going on, we may refer to him as a Grandmaster, even when the 22 year old founder never called himself Grandmaster. I’ve always thought it was funny when founders of arts refer to themselves with simple terms like “Sifu”, yet their students and grandstudents are quick to slap on Master and Grandmaster
  • Be the oldest living student of the founder, who is now deceased
  • You teach students who have students. Then those students have students. There, Grandmaster. You are your student’s teacher, so their students call you Master, while your students call you teacher. Their students’s students will then call you Grandmaster
  • Master your art to the point that no one else on the planet rivals you and recognizes you as the premier guy in your specialty

I’m sure there are other definitions. Some systems have a level of achievement or rank called “Grandmaster”. Some call people “Grandmaster” out of politeness and reverence because he’s old, etc. But what a Grandmaster is NOT is a guy who simply calls himself a Grandmaster, especially when no one else in his lineage calls him Grandmaster. You know, like Muhammad Ali being “The Greatest”? He was a laughing stock when he was a young man calling himself The Greatest–but after his career spanned three decades and he beat the best fighters of his day–there was no doubt, and years after his death, no other fighter would dare call himself The Greatest. Two thoughts come to mind: 1. Most Grandmasters haven’t whipped anyone, and 2. By the time you have read this article, two more guys will decide to call himself a Grandmaster so this title is probably more plentiful than anuses, because many GMs are anuses themselves. Dime a dozen. Your friendly neighborhood Grandmaster ain’t no Muhammad Ali.

And here we arrive at the point of this article. Told you it would be long. What makes a Grandmaster? This is my definition, and please give me your opinion of my opinion!

  1. The Grandmaster is the leader of a system. Simply having time in grade or being old doesn’t make you a leader. You must ACT like a leader. Do the others in your system look up to you for wisdom and guidance? I’m not talking about guys who pay/paid you tuition. I mean other teachers in the system. Do they follow your example? Do they ask for your advice? Do you teach them anything? Can you name all the Sifus in your lineage? Have you taught the Masters in your lineage? Do you have anything to offer them? Are they missing any information that only you can give them? Is there a general consensus among your system’s leadership that you are without a doubt THE Grandmaster? Look. I could create 10 websites calling myself King of America. I could write 200 articles declaring myself King of America. I could even convince a few guys that I am indeed the King. But if this country’s population and it’s leadership do not see me as King and follow me–I ain’t no King. Like in the Ali example, he called himself The Greatest, but then proved he was The Greatest, and then the entire boxing world crowned him King in their hearts. You want to be a leader? Act like a leader. Mediate arguments and conflicts between parties in your system. Promote the other Sifus in your system more than you promote yourself. If you really care about the art, you want everyone in the art to improve and you protect their reputations at all costs. One thing a Grandmaster does not do is whisper to students that a fellow Sifu or lower level Sifu “sucks”, and instead contacts that Sifu to offer assistance in improving his skill. You attend the functions of others in your art. you speak highly of them, and do your best to brag what great Kung Fu men exist in your system, because like a proud Grandfather–all his babies are beautiful and smart, even when some of them really aren’t. You must love the art and the people doing this art more than you love money, attention, praise, and reputation–and you spend the majority of your time developing everyone in your art to achieve greatness, even those who don’t pay you for lessons. This characteristic alone–99% of the people calling themselves “Grandmasters” FAIL.
  2. You must have mastered the art. Many grandmasters put on great demonstrations. Most do not; they simply have excellent public relations. But there is a saying in the Philippine martial tradition that young fools don’t always become wise old men–many young fools grow up to become old fools. If you excelled at the art when you were young and continued excelling, you will eventually master the art. It is possible, however, that most mediocre young men grow old and self declare mastery while being mediocre old men. Mastery does not occur just because you get old. You must excel beyond your prime to approach mastery. Too often, martial artists drop off after being certified. Then they ride the reputation created as young men until their old age and want to be considered a master. But master in the martial arts is not a noun, it is a verb. You aren’t a martial arts Master until you master the art. And what is the difference between a person who is excellent at the art and one who has mastered it? At least a decade of intensive, deliberate practice. Too many mediocre martial artists rely on trophies and kudos from friends to be declared “good” at the art, and others simply remain mediocre and declare themselves confident. But the pursuit of excellence in the art takes a full-time, almost obsessive, deliberate effort for years alone to become excellent. And your friends cannot declare you to have excelled. This is a adversarial art. You excel in the art by convincing your opponents and adversaries that you have excelled. You can’t be a football team winning games alone. There must be an opponent on the other side trying to stop you. And have enough defeats of those opponents under your belt that your opponents say you’re good. When your competition says you’re good, you’re good. Now do that for a decade, and you must have improved in your tenth year several times over since your first year. Many of these Grandmasters have never stepped on the floor. Now I understand that not everyone wants to engage in combat. But if that’s the case, don’t teach it. And damn sure don’t claim to be an expert at it. Or declare yourself a master of it. Remember, you can spend 40 years practicing an art and never master it. Sure, you might be pretty good at it. But mastery is a very lonely level where you will have few peers. And once you have mastered the art–experts say 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and 20,000 repetitions of your skills–keep it up for another decade. Not everyone can stomach that, which is why most people are self-declared because they lack both the desire or the means to achieve it. I’m sure this rule will draw out a lot of detractors. But let me ask you. Your most basic form in your system. Have you performed it more than a thousand times in deliberate practice? If you want to be part of the elite, you must be willing to do what a very tiny elite are willing to do.
  3. A Grandmaster has a vision for the art, and a plan to get there. Where do you see this system in 5 years? Is that goal a declared one? Is there a solidified mission statement that all Sifus and schools in your art can recite verbatim and are following? You can’t just sit in some shopping center kwoon or running around putting on demos while having no communication with the leadership in your system and call yourself a Grandmaster. Like it or not, if the Sifus in your art are not marching toward the goals that you set, you aren’t their Grandmaster. You cannot lead alone. Leadership of a system includes all the Sifus and assistants of at least most of the schools in your art. But most of these Grandmasters can’t even give you a list of all the schools offering their art in their country of residence. How can you be their grandmaster when you don’t even know where other schools in your system are and who is teaching classes there? The fake grandmaster doesn’t know where other schools are, doesn’t know who the other Sifus are, and honestly–don’t care. I have a Si Hing, I won’t put his name here because I haven’t gotten his permission. But he has kept tabs on me and all my Kung Fu brothers, even those of us he has never taught. He knows what we are up to. He praises us when we do well, he chews us out when we mess up. He is quick to contact us to correct or offer advice. He is a man of character, and most of us, if not all, are actually ashamed when we disappoint him. He never speaks ill of any of us, and even when he is mad at us–gives praise publicly. His school does things we are all proud of and admire, and he invites us to all his events and keeps us informed of anything he learns. And he does not require that we call him Master anything. In fact, he will sometimes insist that we are grown men and we address him by his first name. And in combat he can probably defeat all of us, although I know he would never try. That is a man with Grandmaster qualities. Many of us follow him more than we follow any of the other certified leadership in Jow Ga.

My word count has reached 2,200 so I will end here. You may think I have malice towards my brother, but I don’t. I have malice towards his actions. But the relationship is beyond disrepair, and I’m sure I may have lost some lifelong friends over my approach. But Jow Ga Blasphemy will never be tolerated on my watch. It is my sincere desire to see the leadership of Jow Ga in America rise to the occasion. My Sifu’s passing left a void. He was no Grandmaster. But he was a true Sifu, and although many of us a worthy Sifus in our own right, none of us have filled his shoes. Anytime you put a group of Tigers in the same cage, they will fight. But no one could enter that cage and bring down the pack. Jow Ga in America is, unlike the Kung Fu community of many countries, like a cage full of Tigers. It will take a very strong Tiger to lead this group. You’ll need more than self-declaration, and you’ll need real vision, wisdom and strength. Or you could sit back and call yourself the Greatest without stepping into the ring. Jow Ga does not need a grandmaster of any type. We lost our Si Gung and no one could replace him, but leadership would most certainly push Jow Ga to higher heights. On sheer numbers alone, we will grow the art–but not like it would with strong and focused leadership. Without the leadership, we will work independently and may or may not rise together. We lead to the best of our ability, we improve as much as we can on our own, and we police our own. I believe Jow Ga in America, like most Kung Fu families, would welcome strong leadership. And you don’t have to be old, you don’t have to be Chinese, you don’t need titles to be that leader. But if you want to be a Grandmaster, then fucking act like one. I have a plane to catch. Long live Jow Ga! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.