Critique the Master

2 12 2014

Ah, yes. Analyze the master, even if you have to find fault with the way he did things. Understand that no man (or woman) is above reproach, and as long as we are human there will always be room for improvement. We strive for perfection, but no man should ever believe he has arrived at that point. For the moment you believe you have perfected the martial arts, you have just initiated your demise. Perfection, my brothers, is a never-ending, always out of reach plateau. You may get near it, you may realize you are approaching it, but the closer you reach perfection, you will realize a new goal or challenge. In order to become the perfect martial artists, you must always be in pursuit of it.

(My #1 gripe with Bruce Lee fans, btw–many hurt their own growth because they believe in Lee’s doctrine without question, without deviating from his path when the man was 32 years old…)

If your Sifu has done his job right, the day you become a full instructor, you should be the absolute best product he could produce. We martial arts teachers are a curious bunch. We honor our Masters and teachers by hoping to become the best Kung Fu fighters we can, but in order to do so, we must improve our teachers and their systems. We are often friendly and cordial with each other, but inside our minds, we think we are better than the next guy and do our best to show it. Some of us actually call each other up and tease each other about being better. Some of us take it personal and actually dislike our “competition”. Some of us are in competition with our own brothers. My Si Hing Chris Henderson and I used to kill each other with insults because he owned a Kung Fu school and I worked for a commercial Dojo. When I encountered his students in tournaments I would tell my students to get those “Wu Shu artists”. Another Si Hing of mine would call me a traitor whenever he saw me in a Karate uniform point fighting, telling me I was playing Tag. I would tease another Si Hing, Ron Wheeler, for being a break dancer in a Kung Fu uniform–and he’d tease me about the time he popped me in the nose when we fought at American University (I won lol). My Baltimore friends, who represented four different styles, were my opponents every month in tournaments up and down the 95. Through all of this, we sought to improve ourselves and improve each other through friendly (and not-so-friendly) competition. Yet the one person with whom we should also compete against is the person we often refuse to oppose: Our own Masters.

If we teach our respective styles without acknowledging the potential or need for improvement, our system will not improve. How can you teach your students to develop an unstoppable attack if we do not understand where our weaknesses lie? How can you give your students an impenetrable defense if you do not also teach them how they can potentially be beaten? In the Filipino martial arts, there is a term called “counter for the counter”. When you teach an attack, you must identify the possible counters to that attack, then you must learn how to counter that counter. In other words, in order to understand your system better, you must understand how to beat the system your Master taught you. Many of you are not psychologically ready to face this. Too many believe that their system cannot be improved. Too many believe it would be disrespectful to question what your Sifu taught, or if they had made any mistakes when they taught you. I would suggest that your Sifu very likely improved the art his own Sifu taught him when he taught you, however. Very few of us teach exactly as we were taught. Most of us have our own specialties, our own weaknesses, and things that we like in the art. Doesn’t it make sense to personalize our Hung Gar, our Wing Chun, our Tong Lung, our Choy Lay Fut–so that our students can get the best we can offer?

There are few ways to do this without changing your Sifu’s curriculum. One way is to omit those things you cannot do well. Another is to send your students to various classmates who can perform skills in your system better than you can. You can also elect to emphasize some skills and forms more than others, based on your own taste. But more often than not–you will have to change many things to fit your own individuality as a teacher, and your student’s learning ability, physical limitations or gifts, and needs.

When formulating your school’s lesson plans, it would be very fair to your student to find the most efficient, effective means to results that you can. Our teachers did not know everything. We must admit that. Of course, we respect our masters, but we do them a disservice by idolizing them and deifying them to the point that their legacy is ruined because we are too much in adoration to allow their art to grow. Don’t simply take the training plan you had as a student and regurgitate it without thought. Think of things that you and your classmates struggle with. Is there a way to make it easier to learn? Was there something in your Sifu’s school that caused a many students to drop out? It isn’t fair to just say they were “losers” or “weak”. Did you have classmates who did not get results? Have you found many instances of beginners becoming better than advanced students? Or, let’s just cut to the chase… Can you find a better way to teach than your teacher? Is there anything in the curriculum that is impractical, needs an overhaul, or needs to be emphasized? You are now the Sifu, give your students what they are paying for!

This is one reason I am not in favor of newly made Sifus being allowed to leave right out and open schools. Either that, or we should give instructor candidates ample time to work out those things out before getting in front of a student body. Once the instructor-student has learned the art, he or she may need time to fully absorb and understand the system before it is presented and taught to new students. We want to be fair to our students, and our students’ students by making sure that the art we are giving them has been absorbed, tested, developed and revised. New Sifus must be comfortable enough with the art–with his teacher’s art–to look at it with a critical art, and not be afraid to say, “I’ve improved my teacher’s art.” It is not a slap in your Sifu’s face to say that. In fact, it is a compliment. You are saying, “Sifu, I have learned your art and I have found a way to make it fit me better.”

Saying so means that your Sifu has done more than just taught a student; he has created a confident and wise Sifu-student who has become more than just a certified instructor, he has become a peer.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.





Perfect the Parts, Master the Whole

4 02 2014

You ever notice how some martial artists seem to do everything well–while others are just plain sloppy? Even when they train just as much, are just as committed to learning, and work just as hard? And maybe some of you–regardless of how much you practice–can’t seem to get past the “good” level and become excellent

Wanna know why?

Well, it ain’t simply explained as saying that they are “good” while others are “not so good”. There’s more to it than that.  It’s a simple concept. I call this concept “Perfect the parts, master the whole”. It probably isn’t how much you practice. Rather, what may help you get results could be HOW you practice.

In a nutshell, this is how it works (using forms performance as a point of reference):

  • Develop not just your footwork and stances, but each part of your footwork and stances–your balance, the appearance, the formation of the stance, the deepness of your stance, adherence to the integrity of the stance while moving, positioning, angle, flexibility. Follow me?
  • Do the same with your hand techniques, kicks and blocks–power, speed, position of both hands, crispness of delivery, posture, hand formation…
  • Practice short series of movements, 40 – 50 repetitions at a time. The series should be no more than 10 or so movements. The majority of your forms practice sessions should consist of this, although you may focus on a different part of the series every few repetitions–like stance, power, fluidity, etc.
  • Occasionally take ONE technique and drill it hundreds of times. I wouldn’t consider yourself to have achieved proficiency of a form until you have done this with each technique of that form at least once
  • Something as simple as a step-turn should be isolated frequently in practice and perfected. You should do this until each time you execute that particular movement–it is done precisely, sharply and needing no adjustment. In fact, you shouldn’t even need to look and make sure you performed it correctly. In other words, perfection will become a second nature habit

Too often, martial artists treat the entire form as one unit. As a result they train for very general objectives, such as endurance. However, especially for Kung Fu forms, there are too many techniques that only get practiced a few times per training session. Take for example, your style’s first form (for many Jow Ga practitioners, it is Siu Fook Fu). How many times do you perform this form per training session in its entirety? 10, 12 times? If you train the form full speed, full power it’s probably even less. Considering which technique we are discussing, in a practice session (if you do the form 10 times in that practice session), you may only be getting 10 – 20 repetitions of a technique per training session. Compare that to my routine:  taking two or three techniques, and doing them 100 times per training session. And this is full speed, full power–which you may not do at all if you are trying to do an entire form.

It takes about 500 repetitions of anything to approach “good”. It takes about 10,000 repetitions to become “great”, and only if those 10,000 reps were focused, technically sound repetitions. Most martial artists do not train this way. Instead, what they call “training” is more like “practice”–a casual, moderate rehearsing of those techniques where you may sweat and leaves you “feeling good” after training instead of sore and in pain. All martial arts training, including forms practice, is “fight training”. Fighters who approach training as if it were an aerobics session will almost never approach the level of perfection and fighting dominance they aspire to. It takes a patient, focused, tough practitioner to isolate something as simple as a step-punch and drill it thousands of times to arrive to the lonely status of “one of the best”. Training sessions will hurt, they will be boring, and they will be long. They aren’t entertaining. They don’t exactly look like a scene from a Shaw Brothers film. But they will bring you the skill and mastery every man or woman reading this article wants–but very few of you will achieve… Even some of your “Masters”.

Please take a look at the following clips. This is the “Half Step” used in Jow Ga. I will explain this skill in more detail in the next article, but observe how Instructor Sharif Talib is practicing a movement that many take for granted. Perhaps you may have had explained to you once or twice in your martial education, but once you learned it you most likely have forgotten about it and simply performed the movement while practicing other higher skills. However, improper use of the half step will result in

  1. poor centerline alignment
  2. the lack of using the shift for power, speed, penetration and reach
  3. loss of speed in the delivery of punches
  4. improper weight distribution

By giving this part of a larger technique–the step-punch–its due attention and perfection, you improve your effectiveness and delivery of the entire technique.

But more on that next time. Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

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R.I.P. Chan Man Cheung Sifu (Message to Jow Ga America)

6 10 2013

So my Si Gung, Chan Man Cheung Sifu, has joined the ancestors. What a joyous occasion.

Chan Man Cheung is one of the Jow Ga masters who had made his name as one who excelled in Kung Fu rather than Lion Dance. Yes, all Kung Fu masters do lion dance. Yes, Si Gung was known for his lion dance. But CMC what known for his martial arts skill, and he was not just an old guy who knew kung fu–he really was known for his good skill, and his ability followed him well into his old age.

But none of that matters. Martial Arts, my friends is an individual activity. It is one where no one rides the bench–every man stands on his own feet, and his skill speaks for itself whether he is alone or with an opponent. Even if you are on a team, at some point your individual skill is what matters, not lineage. Not affiliation. Not title. Not organization. Your Sifu could have been the great Bruce Lee, and if your skill reminds onlookers of a wet noodle–your kung fu is “no good”.

Si Gung was known for his skill, his students’ excellence–but none of that matters because it is up to you to build your own reputation and support the reputation of your own Sifu. CMC is simply an ancestor, and you cannot take him into a fight with you, a tournament ring, not even the office when you are attempting to convince potential students to join you rather than the guy down the street.

Kung fu people get so much into certificates, lineages, affiliations and alignments–with both well-known masters as well as just someone just because they are Chinese–that we tend to forget the only thing that matters is what you can do when you step out on the floor and the level of character you have with those who are not on the floor with you.

We Jow Ga people have our drama. We always will. We are a family–close, extended, love and hate. Many of us Sifu knew each other as kids. Some other Sifu knew us when we were kids. There will always be differences of opinions and philosophies, and there will always be those we simply don’t like. But we area all Jow Ga, and we either represent our Sifu, our grandmaster, or ultimately–each other. When outsiders look at us, they see every other Jow Ga man out there. When they see Sifu Deric Mims’ students, they also think of Sifu Rahim Muhammad and his people. When they look at Sifu Sam Chan, they also think of Sifu Raymond Wong. We are all Jow Ga, and don’t you forget it. Because when students go looking for a school, and they must choose between Tae Kwon Do, Wing Chun and JOW GA–not Tae Kwon Do, Wing Chun or Maurice Gatdula. Don’t flatter yourself.

CMC was to all of us who knew him, a father. He gave advice, he scolded, he bragged. He loved our Sifu and was proud of him. He had said on a few times that when Dean Chin wanted to show off his students, he brought them to fight. Few other Jow Ga Sifu were like that. Few other KUNG FU Sifu were like that. Most simply donned their fanciest uniforms and weapons and titles, and demonstrated forms or Lion Dance, while Sifu made his guys suit up and knuckle up. CMC liked this about our Sifu, and we need to keep that going.

As I look around the Jow Ga world, I see men who love to tell stories of Jow Lung’s exploits as a fighter, but then they get on youtube and only do forms and Lion Dance. That is not what drove our lineage forward. There is a reason why other branches of Jow Ga do tricks with their Lion Dance and Dragon Dance, while ours still wear plain T shirts and perform forms with heavy Kwan Dao. It’s in our DNA as Kung Fu men under Chan Man Cheung. Please, keep it alive.

We don’t have to love each other. We don’t have to get together at functions and hug all over each other and act fake. But we do need to keep our skills high, and represent this style strongly. And if you feel like your branch of this branch is missing something–just remember that you have family all around you.

The Dean Chin Jow Ga Federation is dedicated to spreading the Dean Chin version of Jow Ga under Chan Man Cheung, and we’d love to do it through our own brothers and sisters. All you have to do is ask.

“Yat Ga” (One family)

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation website.





Why Tae Kwon Do Has Such Good Kickers

14 03 2013

Hopefully this article does not offend or insult. Please hear me out.

What is Kung Fu people generally known to excel at? Take note that the key word here is “excel”–as in “few others do better”. Our hedgehog. It is the one thing that we do, that we are so good at, that anytime someone wants to learn this one thing (or short list of things), general consensus is that you need to go see a Kung Fu guy. You’re not going to like this…

With the exception of only a few within our arts–like Wing Chun or Shuai Chiao–the answer is “nothing”.

See, in Kung Fu, there exists a phenomena that we seem to embrace and it prevents us from being dominant in the world of martial arts. And that one thing is this:  We try to learn and do everything. Our systems often boast of teaching 10 weapons or more, but most of us only know one or two forms for each weapon, and we don’t really possess any fighting skill with those weapons. In fact, we probably have never fought with those weapons… ever. Our Sifus have never fought with those weapons. If asked to fight, say, a fencer or a Japanese Kendoka–we probably couldn’t do it. We don’t want to admit it, but a vast majority of the things we teach our students have almost no combat value to us. We will tell those who ask, “Later, later” until they stop asking. Instead, we distract them by telling them to focus on learning the form at hand, or promising some later period in their training when it will come. And one day, years from now–that student will be a Sifu himself, and offer the same, lame excuses for why the butterfly sword is no more effective against a broadsword than a pair of double daggers. Why? Because the truth is, we’ve never tried it ourselves.

So the Kung Fu man, if he is known for everything, is generally known for knowing a little of everything–but not knowing and being able to do anything well.

Hey, don’t kill me, I’m just the messenger.

There’s no reason for it to be this way. We are, after all, the forefathers of most Asian martial arts. The Chinese arts, if you dig deep, are highly advanced. Traditional Chinese arts are perhaps more advanced than most systems tenfold. But over the generations, we have weakened to the point that we must throw Chinese-style only tournaments and tout fighters (San Da/San Shou) whose fighting styles look nothing like what we do in our schools as proof that CMAs are just as effective as any styles. We have the disease called “Oh-we-have-that-too”, and then in our classes we fumble around with techniques that are very unfamiliar to us:

  • We have “hidden” grappling in our arts, but a wrestler would murder us on the ground
  • We have trapping, but a Wing Chun guy tells others that what we do “isn’t the same” (out of respect)
  • We teach the same punches that a boxer teaches, but please….
  • We have staff techniques, but we have to use waxwood so that our technique looks strong
  • We kick, but TKD green belters kick way better than our Sifus, unless that Sifu use to train in TKD too
  • We have “sword” techniques, just don’t try to hit anything with those swords (they’re too expensive to have to keep replacing broken spring steel pool noodles

I think you get it.

So what can we do? Easy. From this point forward, I want you to take one set of skills and one weapon. If you want it to be one form, or techniques from one group of forms, or one type of technique–whatever. For the next 6 months, aside from your classes, practice nothing else. Experiment. Spar. Test it with someone whose martial arts experience is very unlike your own. See what you can come up with. If you have a form that you want to use, start with a chart and doing that form 500 times from beginning to end. Then once you accomplish that, start breaking down that form, technique by technique. Find ways to work those techniques into your sparring. Replace the tiger claw with a punch, the chop with a back fist. You get it.

Because the reason why the Tae Kwon Do guy is known for his kicks is that he doesn’t do much else besides that. He can kick far better than you can–in fact, he can fight a whole match and use nothing else–and probably kick your behind. And you’ll be sitting there after a loss complaining that the rules prevented you from using “your” techniques, as if your system doesn’t have a Roundhouse, a front kick, a side kick… blah blah blah. He just does it better; it’s his hedgehog.

Here in the Chinese Martial Arts, we offer a little of everything and that isn’t good enough. We can offer a little of everything, but we need a lot–a WHOLE lot–of something. So perhaps your lineage has not come up with one–so you do it. You’ll be glad you did.

We welcome comments and dialogue either here or on our Facebook page.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.