Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is your Kung fu Authentic?

Authentic: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse>, made to be or look just like an original 

So is your Kung Fu authentic?  I know many people will say "Absolutely" then proceed straight to telling me or other people that our version isn't, but that really proves one of the points of this post.  No one can claim to have the only authentic martial arts of their lineage or style.  Authentic by definition is not the same across the board.  Every person can have authentic Kung Fu as long as they understand that they will never copy their masters exactly, but do their best anyways, using their own unique personality and understanding to create the copy.  There are so many people who talk about traditional and orthodox Kung Fu, but they don't understand that there can be no such thing by simple definition of those words.  The arts change a little bit every generation, no matter what people want to believe.  We can look at a myriad of martial arts, but lets use the ones that I know best, Xingyi and Bagua.  Neither of these arts are exactly the same as they were when created, most notably Bagua, which has undergone MASSIVE changes since its creation.  It doesn't matter which lineage you follow, we all know that the arts are different from when they first appeared.  So can anyone claim to have "orthodox" Bagua?  Nope, no one can.  By simple definition it is impossible.  We can share in the traditions of our teachers and practice their movements, but can we ever express them the same as they do?  When we look at people as the sum of their experiences and factor in different body types, abilities, health, etc........It only proves that it is impossible.  I have a great teacher, but I will never match his movements completely and as much as you hate to hear it, you can't match your teacher exactly either.  It's impossible.  So how can you have 'traditional' or 'orthodox' Kung Fu when you can't copy one generation prior to you?

Now I don't mean this to cut anyone down, it is just a simple fact.  But what each of us CAN do is authentically try to re-create what our teachers are doing.  But this requires each of us to understand that since we are vastly different from our teachers in many ways, that it cannot ever be done perfectly.  I think the old masters knew this, that is why they stress the core ideas and functions of their arts more than making sure the "signature" they left in the art stays there forever.  Dong Hai Chuan didn't demand that his students never change the styles of Bagua he helped create (not getting into alternate origins again, just going to use the commonly accepted founder), in fact he watched as his art changed before his eyes and never once said "Stop".  I believe that is because his intent was not to create little clones of himself, but to show the diversity of his art, that it can be practiced correctly in many different ways.  But it is important to note that each of his students practiced and taught their arts in an authentic way, in that they were authentic to themselves AND their teacher.  Each of them took his art and combined it with another art they had mastered and they were very successful doing it.  

Now before anyone gets the idea that I am suggesting tossing our teachers material, don't get ahead of yourself.  What I am saying with that example is that great martial artists have always been authentic to themselves as much as they are authentically re-creating their teacher's art.  They aren't polar opposites at all.  We can do our best to honestly pass down the arts we have received without changing a thing but also do that in a way that is authentic to ourselves.  We can used different explanations to show why practices are important or use other knowledge that we gain to tie practices together or better understand them.  For example I was explaining how our style of Bagua practices stepping, and I jokingly used a reference to the old cartoons where you see a wolf in a Zoot suit strolling down the street (Mostly because I just watched that cartoon with my children that morning).  After everyone had a good laugh, I pointed out that even though it is a cartoon, his weight is back, his hips are opening and allowing a long stride that is also relaxed.  Of course that isn't a perfect example, but every one of my students will remember it, simply because it was different but explained a traditional idea.  What started out as a joke wound up being a 'somewhat' good example of my teacher's methods, but it is something he probably never would have said.    I'm sure most of you can think of a time that you have explained something totally different than your teacher might have, but still taught the core idea correctly.

Part of this blog is to make the point that we all have to stop using the terms 'authentic', 'traditional', and 'orthodox' as clubs to beat other martial artists over the head with.  It is easy to see that none of use are truly traditional since our arts could almost be unrecognizable to the original founders (there is absolutely NO way to know if you move the same as the first generation).  Not one person can honestly say or truly prove that their method is the same as the original if their art is more than 50 or 60 years old.  Just can't be done.  But what we can do is show that we are trying to create an authentic copy of what they were doing.  But in admitting that you are doing that, you lose the ability to insult other practitioners, since you have to admit that your art is different than the original.   That will be hard for a lot of people I think.  But the other point of this is to point out that the success stories of the past can help us move into the future and let our arts spread.  It is very easy to see that as a general rule, schools who claim to be 'the most orthodox' are also the schools who are dying out the fastest.  This isn't an insult to the teacher's abilities at all, but more a commentary on the fact that students are attracted to authenticity in people more than claims of being 'better than others'.  Let's take a look at a well known teacher that I have used in examples before.

 Novell Bell is a martial artist based out of New York City who learned Bagua, Xingyi and Tai Chi from great teachers and shares what he learned, but with his own unique flavor.  A lot of people try to cut him down for different reasons, but the pure fact is that he has become MUCH more successful and reached MANY more students than most of us ever will.  I personally would chalk that up to the fact that he is 100% authentic to himself as he shares his teacher's knowledge.  He teaches the same palm changes and forms as his teacher, but in a different manner, one that reflects who he is as a person and allows him to really teach from the heart.  This is very important to spreading martial arts, one of the most important factors in my opinion.  The greatest compliment that I have ever gotten was that several of my students decided to stick with the arts I teach because I was so passionate when I teach that they WANTED to stick around.  But I will freely admit I am not the best practitioner or teacher in the world.  I know of several friends, past and present, who are better teachers than I am but since they refuse to be authentic to themselves have never really been able to gain traction when starting their school.  

Motivational speakers, business advisers and life coaches across the globe have always said one of the most important factors to success and personal happiness is being authentic to yourself in every aspect of your life.    Kung Fu seems to be one of the rare places where people are told to 'change how you think and be like someone else'. Maybe this is why so many schools are failing, because all of the martial arts we have today came from people being authentic, and were improved by people being authentic.  So why now should we NOT be authentic?  My teacher once told us to "be good copy machines of the art".  But he has never once told us to "be good copies of me, my teacher or my grand-teachers".  Can you imagine if there were 10,000 copies of Wu Mengxia running around?  The skill would be great, but there would be non-stop brawling!  Wu Mengxia was a great martial artist, but he had somewhat of a short fuse for silly people. The end point is that if you open your eyes and look, the greatest success we can have as martial artists is to take what our teachers share of their skill and pass it on while we are being true to who we are.  Give it a shot, I think you will love how your school grows because of it.  

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  1. Good article. Pretty much right on target, I think.

    I think this all ties in with the statement you hear from most martial artists about how their teacher(s) were "better" than them. While I think there is some truth to that statement (especially if you studied with some near-legendary figure), I think some of that statement has to do with each person being authentic to themselves, rather than to those who came before them. Either that, or our predecessors were superheroes...

    I liked your zoot suit wolf analogy. In our cultural milieu, it is one that brings instant recognition for most of us. I've also enjoyed the one they use in Aikido, when they compare the ideas of Aiki to Fred Astaire dancing with the broom in one of his old movies.

  2. Bagua and Xingyi are arts of Liu He (Six Harmonies), as is Taiji and a number of other arts. In the old days many/most arts in China were Liu He, although in modern times, even though many arts still have "Liu He" in their names, they don't really move according to Liu He. The concepts and principles of Liu He are pretty well laid out in classical literature, so yes, there are qualitative standards to judge whether someone's art is "authentic". An experienced practitioner who uses Liu He in his art can spot it immediately in someone else's art. A Six Harmonies art being done without six-harmonies, dantian control, etc., is easy to spot.

    2 cents.

    1. True, but wouldn't Liu He fall into "not changing the core of the art" that I mentioned? And I think anyone can learn to use the harmonies, but it won't mean that they are "orthodox", right? Since it is such a common theme, I think anyone could pick up a book or be taught the 6 harmonies and if they drilled it enough, they could do it without any other 'traditional' training. What do you think, sir?

    2. I think you should archive your response and think about it in the coming years. ;) Do you really think that the six harmonies is that simple?


      Mike Sigman

    3. Yes, sir. According to the teachers in my lineage, it is pretty simple concept. Hard to master, but simple to explain. Wu Mengxia is my great grand teacher, it is his concepts

  3. Master Bakari is another one who gets criticized for his Xingyi and Bagua, but I've always been a big fan of the his Youtube clip performing Tan Tui (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjNt3ckjlrc) and have read that his Shaolin is supposed to be pretty good.

  4. Nice job Jesse with a difficult topic. I have to say, I liked the pics a lot as well. ;)

  5. Yeah, I asked permission of Sifu Bell to use his, but the other one I just stole without permission, cause that is how I roll! ;)

  6. Yeah we'll see you roll like a little bitch when I catch up w/you in Seattle cause dats how I roll! LOL

  7. I don't know about that, Rory and I mixed it up yesterday and Laoshi got a pick of me slamming him into the wall HARD, you two are about the same size, right?

  8. This question is something every martial artist has thought about...
    I like what you say though,
    Stick true to the principles of the art, and connect them to the principles of your self...
    Awesome post.

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.