Is your teacher a fraud?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit us on Facebook at