Monday, August 21, 2017

Make war the Roman way.

Bellum Romanum
All-out war without restraint as Romans practiced against groups they considered to be barbarians.

Last week, I shared a video by Master Chim (linked below) about ineffective martial arts techniques and no matter whether you like, hate or don't know who Master Chim is, he raised some valid points about the way that martial arts are taught in modern times.  He asked good questions about the techniques being taught such as the double handed wrist grab or lapel grab and why students are taught ineffective, time consuming and often silly responses to situations that almost never happen and it got me thinking.

It's true that too many schools teach these techniques but I think it's also true that most students and even more teachers know that these techniques are pointless because it's VERY unlikely that a student would ever see these set ups being used in real life.  So why learn them?

I think the answers from teachers would be that "It helps the student get used to being grabbed" and while that is a nice sentiment, how does it really help students if they are learning things that they will never actually use?  Why not focus the student from the beginning on attacks that actually will happen such as a haymaker, shove, front kick, etc?

I was lucky enough to spend a long time as a bouncer at several different clubs and country bars and I have to say, the fights I saw never started with someone grabbing another person by the lapel or taking both of their hands to grab a single wrist of their opponent.  Fights usually start in a couple different ways and it's rare that they start with any of the attacks that students learn in most martial arts schools.  To further explain this, we have to understand that the majority of people who pick fights on "Da streetz" or in a bar aren't trained martial artists and often will use incredibly simple attacks simply because they are natural and the person doesn't know any better.  So why would we as teachers show anything but these in the beginning?  Why show students techniques that we know they aren't likely to face instead of the attacks we KNOW are most likely to happen?

I think it comes down to filling up time and keeping the students interested.  Traditional martial arts are very simple, that's why they are effective, so there is a limited number of things to fill up time during a students contract, leading the teacher to create situations just to keep the students engaged.  Most students don't want to hear that they should put in a thousand more reps on a basic technique and instead complain that they aren't learning more and teachers weakly give in to those complaints instead of teaching their students discipline and single mindedness during training.

You may be saying "That doesn't seem like such a big deal" without considering how wild some of these elaborations become.  Have we not wondered where people get ideas about secret dim mak techniques, qi projection, Lin Kong Jin and how they become so popular?  The simple answer is that those "practices" come when teachers want to keep their students entertained and paying tuition so they expound on mystical ideas that devoted students lap up because of the mystery.  Here are a couple examples, hope you laugh your brain out at how ridiculous these are

OK, so the last one I had to choose because of the music, gets me every time.  Please understand that these are both men who found fame in the past because they, some damn way, convinced students that their methods were effective and worth investing money, and most importantly, time into.

Great, so now that I have gone on a rant, let me tie this back into the title of the article and my feelings on martial arts.  I was listening to Dan Carlin's 'Hardcore History' podcast and he mentioned making war the Roman way and it perfectly fit my beliefs about self defense and how martial arts have been used throughout history.  He summed it up with a perfectly short statement of how the Romans would fight other groups who didn't play by the normal rules of Roman war and that was 'Bellum Romanum" or total war.  No stone left un-thrown, no house left standing, no resistance left to rise up again.  Individual fights would often take the same path as anything else would allow your enemy to get revenge down the road.

We look at traditional martial arts from a modern perspective, thinking that olden times must be SOMEWHAT like today in that most people aren't likely to experience life or death situations multiple times in their lives.  We view the past through our comfortable, plush lens and forget that several hundred years ago when our arts were developing, the world was a savage and downright scary place to live and you had to be ready to fight or run at a seconds notice.  The martial arts of the time were a response to that in that they taught how to fight and kill as quickly as possible, with no extra movements or fancy poses.  They trained to go from neutral to overdrive in a second because that was the only thing that kept them alive.  Gong Fu masters, along with masters of other Asian arts, where often brutal fighters and when I say brutal, I mean truly brutal in a way that few people today can imagine.  This isn't a reflection of their character but a needed response to the times.  We forget that fighters actually died regularly and while not every teacher engaged in Kumite style death matches, if they weren't prepared, someone who was could come and take everything anytime they wanted.  This led to a very high level of preparedness among real masters.

The last large scale use of this mentality was by Indonesian Silat fighters during World War 2 against the Japanese occupation.  Silat fighters didn't line up in rows and columns against the technologically superior Japanese military, instead they fought un-orthodox battles against the Japanese and it often looked like a hurricane of blades went through Japanese patrols.  This method of total war was so frightening and damaging to the Japanese that they were eventually driven out of Indonesia. 

So how does all this talk of war relate to how modern martial artists should prepare?  Well, it's simple.  You need to prepare for a situation where you must go all out to defend yourself against an opponent that won't stop if you stomp their toes or apply a wristlock against them.  You have to prepare for fights that aren't one on one.  In those instances, striking a fearsome Kung Fu pose or using the delayed death touch won't stop the bad guys from applying an instant death touch via stomp or stab  

It's a hard pill to swallow that all of our training will be properly expressed in a second or two of strikes but that is reality.  We don't get long, drawn out battles where we can suddenly turn the tables once the bad guy has stopped to gloat or the orchestra changes their music (my Kung Fu fights have professional music playing to keep the suspense up, I'm sure yours are the same way).  We have to respond with full force once we know that we can't walk away.  I think most people know that point, the point where things have gone very badly and there is no saying "I'm sorry, here is my wallet".  Some people will respond with "But that's illegal" but it's simply not when you can truly show that you tried to walk away but your life was threatened.  Another example could be the recent attacks in Europe.  During the stabbing attacks in London, no one would say that responding with full force was inappropriate, and since those situations are the most serious and life threatening, why not train for those and know that you don't always have to go wild if your brother in law gets drunk at a family Thanksgiving?  (Related side rant that relates here)  It always amazes me when teachers say their arts are too deadly to use for sparring as it's an admission that they aren't in control and don't chose the way they fight.  If you can't chose your level of intensity, you aren't in control.  

The long and short of this article is that I don't teach my female students to try and joint lock someone my size.  I don't teach them to 'put their dukes up' when we talk about fighting.  We don't even discuss the old trope of "Stomp their foot and you can run away" as I've seen that not work a few times and more tellingly, most people don't use it because it's naturally not very effective with today's boots and cushioned shoes being something that everyone wears.  If one of my female students asked me "What do I do if someone grabs my neck?" my response is never some convoluted and precise pairing of shouting 'HELP' and twisting his pinkie to release his grip.  I teach what works and if a man my size grabs one of my female students by the neck, the only proper response (legal as well) is not to tie up her hands with grabs and locks but simply to use both of her free hands to strike and demolish the attacker by hitting the eyes and throat, a justified total war approach when her life is actually threatened.  Don't take this as me being overly macho or trying to turn my students into modern Berserkers but instead see that the only logical response to a smaller, weaker person being grabbed by the throat by a much larger and stronger attacker is to fight with everything they have to make sure they go home safely at night.

Silly techniques combined with a false sense of nobility that many Westerners use to whitewash the history of their arts in an attempt to avoid having to 'Put up or shut up' have made traditional martial arts look weak in our modern world.   False nobility is a shield against being called out for making insane claims of skill, ie "I'm a scholar boxer" or "That's not how gentlemen act" and I believe have also contributed to the rise of worthless martial tactics, as the teacher creating them hasn't had enough or any fight experience to draw on when setting up training scenarios.  

Look at what is taught in your school.  Are the techniques realistic to actual fights?  Do you emphasize training against rear bear hugs instead of rear naked chokes?  Why train it when only a strong and experienced wrestler or thrower would even attempt throwing from a rear bear hug and you aren't likely to get into a bar brawl with them?  Why train against lapel grabs when it's almost a certainty that the bad guy will start with a shove or wild overhand punch?  If you aren't convinced completely when you answer this, are you sure that you are learning the right techniques you will need?

I'm just asking for you to look at your art and ask if there are any worthless techniques that can be put aside in favor of more likely needed defenses.  We have to make the world see the relevance of traditional martial arts again before our reputation is totally gone.  

Train hard and be great.

Here is the Master Chim video I mentioned earlier.  Whether you agree with him or not, he raises good questions.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
For questions or more information, please email to
or visit us on Facebook at

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Is your teacher a fraud?

Is your teacher a fraud?

Many people believe that Gong Fu is dying and nothing can be done to stop it.

Not me.  

I'm a solid optimist when it comes to Gong Fu's future and I will explain why in a later article.  Right now, I want to address what I think is a real threat to Gong Fu and what is holding it back from regaining the respect it had in the past.

If you guessed from the title that I am going to talk about fake teachers, then you are 100% correct, give yourself a pat on the back!

Every good student should care about and respect their teacher, plain and simple.  But each student has a responsibility to ask if their teacher is being completely honest or not, as a matter of simple due diligence.  While new students are probably overwhelmed with the new culture they are exposed to, when they are adjusted, they should start asking if what they are learning is real and worth the effort they are about to put in over the years.

I've been training since 1999 and teaching since I came back from China in 2004.  I've been around the block a couple times and combined with years as a salesman, I have a pretty solid BS detector.  There are key things I look for and you can look for too that should indicate further questioning is in order.

Now, I'm going to start with something that is pretty common knowledge and that I've even written about in the past.  It still needs to be said for full honesty.  I had a completely fake teacher in the past that suckered me in like no one's business and after that situation exploded, I found myself trying to piece my sense of self back together.  I traveled all over the country, trying to learn bits and pieces of the art I loved so I could somehow salvage the "style" I had put years of training into.  No joke, I spent a couple years trying to rebuild an art I had never truly learned and my refusal to just cast the trash aside was completely due to my ego at the time.  

This is important mostly because as I tried to glue the pieces together, I had a lot of the same thoughts and impulses that I see well know frauds acting on today.  It kinda gives me a queasy feeling to write that but it's true.  Luckily, I met my Shifu, recognized his skill and made the right decision to throw all the previous stuff in the trash, to start over under him.  I may have thought in the past that I gave up years of training but in reality, I wasn't actually training an art, I was just prancing around and making sure to tell people I did Gong Fu.  

The first thing we have to understand is that fake teachers operate solely from their need for recognition and a burning desire to be unique.  Since they aren't willing to put in the time under an actual teacher to learn an established art, we can also assume they are taking the easy road but just making up whatever seems cool.  These things are important because they tell you what kind of person we are talking about and in the end, are you willing to fork over your money, safety and most importantly, your limited time on this planet under someone who has no issue lying right to your face?

I thought not.

Ok, so here we go!

1. They don't have any pictures or video with their teacher-   Fake teachers can't prove they learned from anyone. Guys/gals, this should be the first thing you look for when you start 'fact checking' your teacher.  In this day and age, video recorders, phones and even basic cameras are literally EVERYWHERE!  They have been super common for the last 15 years or so, at least in the West and since most fake teachers are younger, this applies directly to them.  If the teacher truly spent years with a master, are we really supposed to believe that no pictures were ever taken?  No videos to use as supplemental notes? Nothing????  Come on now!

2. The teachers' teacher is no where to be found-   This ties into the first reason obviously.  There is a potential that SOMEHOW, there was never a camera or video recorder available (No matter how unlikely that is) so a great way to check a teacher's validity is to just go meet and talk with their master.  My students can do it anytime they like and verify anything I have told them with my teacher (my Shifu is a completely amazing open book).  But when the fake teacher is asked about this, they either resort to saying "He died" or "He is extremely private".  And yes, many Chinese masters are private but they aren't hiding in caves or in attics somewhere.  My Shiye is private, I had to get a personal introduction from my teacher to train with him but he never hides that he trains Bagua to outsiders.  My teacher's old training ground is DIRECTLY in front of an apartment/office building, 15 feet from the front door.  This is a great example that even private teachers still operate in public, they just don't make a big fuss about it.  Why can't anyone talk to the fake teachers Shifu?  I think we all know the answer.  

3.  Their art is always expanding-    This one may be a little too subtle for some people but I think most can grasp it.  It's a simple fact that old school Gong Fu styles are finite.  They don't have 500 forms plus another 1000 weapons forms and even in the case of super old styles like Tan Tui, it's extremely rare to find a teacher who knows all of them.  Most people simple can't memorize and train a huge number of forms  In time, you will also find that a huge emphasis on learning new, exotic forms is a cover for not learning an art deeply.  It's easy to memorize a dance but extremely difficult to embody deep mechanics.  Beware of the teacher who somehow has oodles of forms that no one else has ever heard of or if they push forms that have no application in the main style.

4. Other teachers don't recognize them or what they are doing-  The martial arts community isn't as big as many people think and especially inside specific styles, the list of recognized and legitimate teachers isn't massive.  The movements within most styles are fairly similar as well.  Let's take Xingyi for example.  Within Xingyi, the elements and animals are fairly similar between established styles with only smaller variants decided by the personal taste of each teacher.  Like Hu Xing, or Tiger shape.  Across all the styles, Tiger is recognizable and has similar applications and intent.  If someone comes along and is doing a Tiger that has NOTHING in common with what the legitimate community recognizes, that is a very good indicator that something is amiss.  I know it rubs some the wrong way but logically, it's more likely than not that if the whole community doesn't recognize what the teacher is doing, it's completely new or fabricated by someone who doesn't understand the original concept.

5.  They exclusively quote commercially published manuals-  This one is a dead giveaway of a teacher who doesn't come from a martial family.  I give Sun Lu Tang lots of credit and respect although you don't see me or other teachers not in his lineage using his manual to back up our practices.  You may perhaps see it quoted as a secondary source but if the teacher isn't quoting his own teacher or using his/her own style manual to go by first, it indicates that there was never that guide to start with.  If someone asks me for backup references for a practice I use, I can go back and find material written by my teacher, grand teacher or great grandteacher, I don't need to use a manual that I bought at Barnes and Noble to prove my practice.  A common retort is "My family doesn't have a manual" but this is also somewhat suspicious as it was common practice for a style manual to be written and passed down to help younger generations.  This last example isn't bulletproof though, sometimes the manual legitimately is missing or destroyed.

6.  They are the only ambassador from their style-  This point raises eyebrows especially when combined with no evidence of a teacher and here is the simple reason.  You can't learn a martial art by yourself!  You can't learn combat just by waving your hands in the air without a partner to test movements against.  It's simply impossible to build reactions, timing and proper distance in the chaotic environment of fighting without another living body to work against.  A variant of this is when a teacher claims that it was just him and his teacher, no one else.  It's extremely unlikely that they fell into a Mr. Miyagi situation where the teacher only had one student his whole life and never had any other classmates to train against.  

7. If they go to the home country of their art, they have no one to visit-  This is another dead giveaway of something fishy.  Let's take Chinese Gong Fu for example.  The older teachers in China are very worried at how the younger generation of Chinese aren't interested in training anymore.  They love their arts and want them to be passed on so when a foreigner comes to visit, they are more than likely going to be very curious and at least meet with them.  On top of this, traditional Gong Fu is often taught in a family atmosphere, and the members treat each other as extended family.  It could be considered extremely rude if a foreign student of the art showed up and no one made the effort to visit them and make sure they were taken care of, not to mention train with them, possibly the whole reason the foreign student came.  Chinese martial artists take bonds in the family very seriously and wouldn't allow a member to just float around without introducing themselves.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but these are some of the things that set off alarm bells for me and other teachers.  This is also not an underhanded dig at any one teacher.  I think if we look at the most well known frauds, like Jake Mace or Ashida Kim, we will see that they share many if not all of these markers in common.  

So to all the students out there, please take the time and effort to critically examine your teacher and ask if any of these apply.  It doesn't mean they are frauds if one or two apply but it should raise concerns and more questions.  

Train hard and be awesome but most of all, be honest with yourself and your potential students.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
For questions or more information, please email to
or visit us on Facebook at

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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.