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Posted - 08/01/2007 :  23:26:49  Show Profile  Visit southernkungfu's Homepage  Click to see southernkungfu's MSN Messenger address Send southernkungfu a Private Message  Reply with Quote
San Da Training Systems
The instructors’ Network
August 1, 2007

Why I am no longer a “kung fu guy”: observations on a vicious cycle
By David Ross

I am not sure how relevant this particular article will be to those with backgrounds in Japanese and Korean martial arts. While I do have Korean martial arts in my background, I am of course mostly known for my years with the late master Chan Tai-San and my affiliation with Lama Pai kung fu and the traditional Chinese martial art (TCMA) community. In some respects, this is a response to those who wonder why I no longer affiliate myself with that community, i.e. why I am not longer a “kung fu guy”.

Of course, the first and most obvious answer is what I’ve stated so many times, which is evident in my school (New York San Da) and in my association (San Da Training Systems). I am interested in what works and in the most efficient way to teach my students. A very long time ago, perhaps from the very beginning, I rejected the idea that you do something blindly and/or that you did something because it was “tradition”. In fact, as a person who in addition to being a member of the TCMA community is also a trained historian I am not sure what is packaged and sold today as “tradition” has very much to do with what TCMA fighters were doing in China 150 years ago. Today’s “traditional kung fu” has about as much to do with reality as John Wayne movies have to do with the real American frontier!

Another reason I’ve disassociated myself from the TCMA community is what I am beginning to see as a vicious cycle of negativity. The community is in a downward spiral, where each generation is introducing more negativity while simultaneously detaching itself from what should be obvious realities. I don’t think most people have yet to grasp this, but I think the two issues are related. The culture we’ve built in our community is substantially related to our increasing detachment from reality.

There should be no question that the “founding fathers” of TCMA were anything but saints. They had their fair share of negativity. For example, According to Draeger and Smith, the great martial artists in Taiwan during their time "were a truly diverse lot: many were illiterate, some took opium regularly, a few were scoundrels." The description fits well with my experiences with Chan Tai-San and his associates. I’ve even chronicled on the internet the many faces of my late teacher.

However, this diverse lot of scoundrels was also certainly a group of fighters. Whatever antics they associated themselves in, and the list would horrify many new to the tradition, they had fought, they actively fought, and the definitely had a firm grasp on reality. Without exception, the “old generation” cross trained. They learned many styles of Chinese martial art, many learned foreign arts as well. Nationalist pride (and business) now obscures the fact, but in the 20th century the arts of Western boxing and Japanese Judo had HUGE influences upon fighters in both mainland China and Taiwan.

The “old generation” was the epitome of “do as I say, not as I do” but one has to wonder why subsequent generations, particularly Americans, embraced the propaganda so completely? A student studying a system which is in fact a hybrid (pretty much ALL the Chinese martial arts practiced today are hybrids and evolutions of older traditions), under a teacher who himself studied several systems with several teachers (and whose teachings, whether he admits it or not, is influenced by all these experiences) blindly buying into the idea that he is supposed to stay “loyal” and not study anything else with anyone else? The completely laughable idea that certain techniques, no matter how practical and effective, might be “off limits” because they are not “part of the system”?

These things aside, the “old generation” had a variety of other negative habits which subsequent generations; again the Americans in particular, seem to have adopted so eagerly? Before I even met Chan Tai-San, I had done Hung Ga and a few other Chinese martial arts and had spent a good deal of time in the community. In the twenty or so years I spent in the “mo lum” as they call it, I was horrified by the behavior of most “respected masters”. They would all sit at the table with each other, talking about their close friendships and warm admiration. Praise for a teacher’s skill, his legendary exploits, etc would be the talk over tea. As soon as one left the table, even for a brief period, the conversation without exception would turn to the person not present. His dear friends would tear into him. An intense rivalry and fear that someone else’s success somehow negatively affected you was pervasive. Like crabs in a barrel, no one ever got to the top because everyone below you would immediately reach up to pull you down.

I watched this institutionalized in several TCMA federations. Federation meetings with the sole purpose of discussing how to address a member of the community’s success happened frequently. Instructors were told they could not advertise their schools! It was of course always wrapped in the robe of some grand Confucian value, but from a logical point of view it was utter nonsense!

The “old generation” specialized in gossip. Gossip about how much time one had really spent with their teacher, what they had really learned, if they had learned it correctly, etc. In the old days, at least some gossip was flattened by reality. An instructor who had actually beaten up a lot of challengers obviously must have some skill, even if he wasn’t from the “right lineage” or learned the “secret tradition” (blah blah). In the United States, where the federations never sponsored anything resembling real fighting and real challenges were few and far between; gossip about supposed challenges that no one had ever seen, or about a person in the lineage who had actually fought but many years ago (and of course which also on one had actually seen) developed as part of the gossip culture as well. Over the years, words, many of them false, replaced action as the currency of the community.

Making matters even worse, supposed “respected masters” were also masters of PERSONAL gossip, none of which of course was really relevant to martial arts. Gossip about wives/girlfriends/mistresses, failed business dealings, drug habits, and all manner of deplorable back stabbing were common tools in assaulting a person whose only “crime” was that they were also a member of the community! Crabs in a barrel.

In recent years, I’ve seen the internet used to keep tired old rumors from 25 years ago alive and well. American students have eagerly embraced this part of the tradition! Perhaps they’ve even surpassed their instructors in the area of “trash talk”? Yes, the current generation has kept every negative aspect of the TCMA tradition alive and well and perhaps even added to the arsenal. The current generation has of course brought in a lot of the managed martial art mumbo jumbo and added it to the stew. Swamp water tastes bad enough by itself, adding manure from the fields only makes it stink more.

It’s unfortunate that they didn’t dedicate themselves as ardently to the lessons on strength, speed, coordination, and applicable fighting skills? Of all the martial arts traditions, traditional Chinese martial arts has become the one where clearly everyone talks about fighting while almost no one is actually fighting! The community reassures itself with stories about fighters from almost a 100 years ago, many of which we can’t even verify. They seem to forget that simply joining a school doesn’t automatically give you the fighting skills of it’s most famous ancestor.


23 Posts

Posted - 09/01/2007 :  19:34:32  Show Profile Send WinterPalm a Private Message  Reply with Quote
I am sure that what much of his experience is sour, however, I've called him on several points in there and he has not responded with anything resembling a scholarly answer.

Not all of the past TCMA masters were negative or mean-spirited people or criminals or whatever. Certainly some were. But at some point, maybe a very long time ago, Buddhist and other value systems and beliefs in morality and ethical conduct became a part of the arts.

Considering he has been very successful and has a successful school, yet says that most of what his teacher taught was crap, I would think he could focus on the positive! He didn't learn what he teaches in a vaccum, and no doubt what he teaches is good stuff. So why write an article talking about what is no good? Obviously he learned a lot that was and it has served him very well in the areas he has applied it in. What more can one ask of their Sifu?

If we want to break the downward spiral, we should embrace the good parts and strive to represent ourselves and our arts in the ways they were never represented to us (as in the case of Mr. Ross), bickering and going on about the negativities, while sideling the great things we've been taught, will do no service to future generations of TCMAs. People can abandon it if they want, but when reputations are built on the past masters, and then one goes on to slander them publicly, is one not continuing the gossip, bickering, etc?

As a sidenote, I see a lot of people on these forums that are doing the opposite, they are creating a upward spiral of positive and supportive communities from which to continue the traditions. My Sifu is one and I am proud to be learning from him. No tradition or system or whatever is the perfect answer to all of life's questions, but the positive far outweighs the negative in many areas, and if we truly want to rise above the bickering and negativity, what better way than to lead by example?
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