We all know a guy like this. He spends his day on the internet telling and re-telling stories about how his martial ancestors were the toughest fighters in the world. We hear a bunch of stories about the ancestors and they all seem to imply or outright assert that their awesomeness gives the lineage snob the right to talk trash about other arts. These guys are universally despised and, as a general rule, suck at martial arts. Too much time on the keyboard and not enough training. But what if we understood that, while those guys suck, the need for lineage is real and can provide fantastic yardstick to gauge a school or martial artist?
There are going to be 2 basic responses to that statement. The first usually comes from people who have created their own arts or know that their teachers weren't totally legit. Their response goes something like, "All you do is talk about lineage! Why are you judging me?? Bruce Lee said to follow your own path!!" Etc. The other response is "I told you so!!!" and is almost as obnoxious as the first. This response usually comes from the lineage snobs I mentioned before and, remember, we all hate those guys. But both of those people are wrong and both know it deep down inside.
Lineage in martial arts has existed for a thousand years for very good reasons. It's a solid gauge of the effectiveness of the art itself and also proof that there is a complete method for teaching and transmitting the art. Effectiveness in usage and proof that the method can produce a strong next generation are vital, obviously and those are two really powerful reasons to care about lineage and they are also more laid back than a lot of people realize. Let's use medical care as a simile here. If you had a terrible disease and you had to pick a doctor for treatment, would you care where that doctor's education came from? If your options were a Harvard graduate who has done extensive post-grad education in an effort to be on the forefront of medicine, or someone who took some courses at the community college and then spent some time surfing WebMD, which would you pick? More than likely, you would pick the doctor most prepared and able to save your life. He would know the latest treatments and the best medicines to use. A doctor that provides a cure for disease is in some ways similar to a martial arts teacher who provides a way for you to protect yourself and your family - you want to choose the best, either way (well, if you have any common sense that is).
Why is the Harvard doctor the wiser choice? It has to do with his knowledge, the work he put in to gain that knowledge, and his ability to apply that knowledge to saving your life. To obtain that piece of paper on his wall, doctors who graduate from Harvard have to complete years of incredibly intense education, a program that is so tough that only 3.3% of applicants are even accepted. Graduates go through long, sleepless nights where they work alone or with their classmates trying to understand important ideas and learn how to apply them. They make massive sacrifices, both in time and money, and understand that they will be responsible for other lives as a result of earning their degree. This makes the guy that took a few classes at community college and surfed WebMD look like a ridiculous choice. His education is directed by what disease catches his eye, not a master instructor who has spent years honing his ability to communicate important ideas and practices. Because of this lack of focused instruction he is often unable to help at all, he just doesn't have the basic tools needed to begin.
Let's use another example from the internal martial arts to see if we can clarify even further. Everyone who has read any sort of IMA text knows about the Kua, right? The Kua is also called the inguinal crease, the section of the torso between the lower abdomen and the thigh. All IMA teachers talk about the Kua but the self-taught teachers don't know that they show their lack of knowledge as they do. Teachers without a good lineage will talk about how it's the source of power in Gong Fu but can't explain how or why it works, or even what muscles are involved in using the Kua. Meanwhile, properly taught teachers can explain exactly how the kua works and why. They know that the muscles that run through the Kua tie directly to the lower spine and pelvis, providing a strong path for force generated from the core to travel to the ground and back. They can also provide a plethora of smaller exercises to develop this area and can easily explain the concept without using a slew of esoteric terms that the student doesn't understand.
I could go on and on with different examples of how lineage provides a great indicator of the quality of both the art and the teacher but, instead, I would like to provide some thoughts or ideas from other teachers. Here is what Byron Jacobs has to share, Byron is the top tudi for Master Di Guoyong in Beijing.
"The name of any style of martial art is in fact referring to a lineage. That art cannot exist or be transmitted in any way without a lineage. If someone is saying that their art is, for example, Xingyi, but has no link from the teaching line to an official lineage, and I mean officially, then it simply should not be called Xingyi. the name is referring to a system and set of principles someone or some line has created and handed down. It literally refers to a lineage. Xingyi is what came from Li Luoneng and if it didn't come through him and his descendants, how can someone be sure that it is Xingyi apart from external appearances? To assume that it is Xingyi without the link to the lineage is insulting, and deliberately misleading to people. Of course, one needs to remember not all people in a lineage are the same level of skill, or as deep or good teachers, so lineage isn't an automatic way to get skill just like not all doctors with a degree are the same level of expertise or as good. That takes practice, study, and I hate to say it, a degree of natural ability, both physically and mentally."
That is a fantastic quote and should cause everyone reading it to think long and hard about where they stand or how they are presenting themselves.
I would like to close with a quote from Voltaire that shows how people with a good lineage view this entire discussion. "Cherish those who seek the truth, beware of those who find it." A martial artist from a solid lineage knows where they stand. We know our place in our families and are willing to humble ourselves in front of another human to learn and develop ourselves more. We show respect to the ancestors because they have illuminated the path for us and have left us guidance to reach the same peaks they did. The person who creates their own style or isn't honest about their art is claiming to have found a final truth. They declare to the world "I don't need a teacher, I already know all there is to know. In fact, I know so much that I can wing it from here" Their methods and thinking are a dead end for any that follow them. Consider that.
Jesse Conley is an Internal Martial Arts teacher in Vancouver, WA. His school is called Stone Tiger Martial Arts and you can reach him with any questions about classes, this blog or questions in general at firstname.lastname@example.org