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An Informal Discussion about Helping Traditional Arts

It is now nearly three years since Master Kai Uwe Pel of Luo Guang Yu’s Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu closed his public class in Shanghai. It was done in the name of being traditional, training a small group for free and shunning the world of medals and belts. But in today’s world of martial arts, what does traditional even mean?

We often associate traditional with being conservative and reactionary, especially in the world of politics. Traditionalists ignore the changes in the world around them and cling to their old ideas. They seem offended and angry at new ideas, they require structure and discipline and strict social order within a hierarchy.

We also have the idealists and the dreamers who fall in love with the romance of kung fu and its philosophies. We think of them as a little bit naive and lacking a practical understanding of the real world. They wear the clothes and live the lifestyle and seem to have an air of pretense about them. They say the mastery of kung fu is never having to use it.

Consider this. You love the art and all the imagery and history that go with it, but you respect it and know it can be achieved only through hard training. You value dedication and respect, but your teacher refuses to be called ‘Sifu’ and there are no belts or levels. You are an idealist, but your ideals and principles lead you to question, not to follow. Now we are entering into practical situations and dilemmas. Now we are moving away from intellectually redundant stereotypes.

Traditional Chinese Martial Arts should be cherished and spread. All of our practitioners agree on this point. But why the urgency? Are we under attack? How do we protect them and are the methods working?

The first thing to realize is that the world has changed. We have modern guns, we have modern nations. Modern nations are policed. Many factors are different from the old world of Chinese Kung Fu. Most people who want regular combat practice and real tests of their skill are going to find it in two places. They can join the army and go to war with guns, or they can get involved in ring fighting such as boxing or MMA. In a pure one to one sports fight with a mat and a ref we have seen a certain style come through that works. If you like this, if you train it and if you believe this is the future of all fighting – that’s fine – you are right. You no longer need to read this article. You don’t need to train TCMA. You should join a good pro-gym that trains boxing or MMA. Good luck. Good bye.

Let’s come back to the world of people who are happy with TCMA, understand it and trust in it and who understand why they do it. The biggest threat comes from ourselves.

A quick think about history coupled with a quick look around the modern world should tell you that today – right at this minute – there are more people training kung fu than in the past. Previously, styles have survived through time despite being practiced only in small closed groups. The problem is that we ourselves get carried away with three main areas – Modern Wushu, competition culture and fame/money.

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Modern Wushu is not a gradual change in ‘kung fu’, it’s not an evolution and it’s not a different style to be compared with other styles. A group of people with very specific political ideas about society and sports sat around a table an invented it wholesale. They then did their best to replace all the kung fu that existed at that point with their new product. A Hung Gar practitioner, for example, who follows the style and line of Wong Fei Hung does not ever need to concern themselves with Modern Wushu in any way. In fact, we should not teach it in our schools and we should not endorse their events. People should be able to clearly differentiate TCMA and Wushu then make their own choice. We should not help Wushu with its tactic of confusing the two worlds on purpose. It does this to continue its policy of replacement.

The next two are more complex. Does teaching more students equal a greater chance of keeping the art alive? Well that depends. If you are teaching your students Wushu as basics then teaching a thousand students won’t help. How is running a school as a business going to effect the training itself? Are you aware that TCMA didn’t have belt systems until very recently in its history? Why do we need them now? Why do you enter competitions?

Having five students who are happy to train their skills for themselves every day on their own – is more useful to Traditional Chinese Martial Arts than a thousand students who need belts, certificates and titles to motivate themselves. With a big school, a belt and competition culture and fame you can make money and give something to the community at the same time – but don’t confuse that with our talk of ‘traditional’ and how it can be preserved.

A real asset to TCMA is when someone reaches the level of ‘master’. It’s very important to know what that means. We must step outside of the cultural definitions above. Mastering an art means being able to perform every skill and aspect of it without question. Every aspect.

Here is a hard truth. Most of us can train kung fu, put a lot of time and effort and achieve a good level over a reasonable time frame. We have skills, we are able to lead a class we are fit and healthy. But this does not make us a master.

Maybe we are very strong and flexible. Maybe we can hold our own in a fight. Maybe we learned a set of forms and can perform them well. Maybe we can use weapons. Maybe we have even used skills in a real fight. Sorry – still not a ‘master’. The hard truth is that the old systems contain enough areas that it is almost impossible to master it all with our modern lifestyles. Only people who obsessively train daily for many years can make it. And not all who try can succeed.

One of the ways in which we think we can help the ‘problem’ of TCMA is by forming associations. This is a good example of not understanding the situation. What do these associations usually do? They want to promote TCMA in the world. They usually start with competitions and events. Already, they are hurting TCMA. Maybe they want to personally introduce more people to genuinely skilled teachers and even some ‘masters’. That sounds fine.  I, Kai Uwe Pel, was once interested in this idea and I helped to start the association called TKV Deutschland - www.tkv-deutschland.de in Germany. Perhaps some traditional style demo shows would help increase awareness, it sounds reasonable. The problem is that we seem to make these connections for business, to feed our own schools. As I mentioned before, having a larger school and more students can help you, but it may not be helping TCMA. That is a different area of discussion.

In the current culture we always seem to ‘jump the gun’ in this respect. Students are students. If a student has a certain skill level we can say ‘that is my student, they are still learning’. But in an association we are all teachers or masters. We claim to represent traditional martial arts – a strong boast indeed! In this case, if we invite a ‘master’ who is simply not up to the standards of the others it cheapens the whole. It exposes the whole adventure as based on business only and hurts TCMA, not helps. How can we expect students to dedicate themselves to higher standards if we can’t even keep them ourselves?

It is now my belief that most good students find you. Or you meet them through social situations because you are like-minded. If you have a small regular class of such people – you have equal chance of producing future teachers of quality than if you had fifty students attained through a business model. Of course, we should have open classes and give everyone a chance. You can make money if you want. The point is only to understand these principles and keep them at heart. If you really want to help promote Chinese Traditional Martial Arts then focus on the non stop improvement of your own skills and those of your immediate students. Community building and helping others is a natural good side of human nature that we all should aspire to – but don’t confuse this with fame and fortune.

Kai Uwe Pel

Shanghai - September 14, 2008


Mantis Book


by Kai Uwe Pel, 230 pages

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7-Star Mantis Schools
Hong Kong