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.



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.