Practicing Martial Arts, Then and Now

by Robert Wulforst

This week, I was going over the finishing touches of converting my ebook “Root within the Wind” into paperback and I was reminiscing on some of the addendum stories I wrote.  I originally wanted to add a story about someone who challenged a kung fu master to a push hands competition.  He thought he could make a name for himself by being able to “defeat” this master with his push hands skill.  Instead, once they began, the master just kicked him in the groin and said, “That’s real fighting”.

Last week’s article was about the presentation vs practicality part of martial arts. Are martial art techniques just for “show” or are they actually “practical” to use in a fight?  In that article, I wrote about the Tai Chi master and the MMA promoter who fought which lead to the master’s embarrassing defeat.  It’s now at a point that the Chen style Tai Chi system issued a statement that the WuShu Federation should put an immediate stop to the actions of the promoter and that no Chen style teacher should stand up to fight.  That doesn’t look very good in promoting Tai Chi.  Now, there’s discussion that the MMA promoter really just wants to wake people up and show how certain martial arts in China are just for show.  If this is true, this really isn’t a bad thing.

I was speaking with one of my Tai Chi students the other day and he was telling me about his Shotokan training in the 60’s and 70’s.  Back then, the teacher would forcibly knock you senseless if you did something stupid.  There was no “horsing around”.  You were either serious or you were beaten seriously.  They did daily kumite, did their utmost, and were respectful about it.  Today, people would be horrified by the harshness of this type of training, yet he talks about it fondly.  He even chuckles over a story he tells about how his sensei knocked him out one time for five minutes, because he hid behind a door to try and scare him.

Chén WēiMíng (陳微明), a famous Yang Tai Chi practitioner in the early 1900’s, wrote about how he ran his school in the book “Answering questions about TaiJi”.  It was quite interesting, as he developed it to run just like a university.  There was a set structure you had to follow and graduating depended on how often you took classes.  You learned the theory, the forms, and did push hands every day.  The last few classes were specifically devoted to fighting applications and fighting theory with Tai Chi, both hand to hand and with weapons.

During Chén WēiMíng’s time, martial art challenges were issued to schools frequently.  People wanted to either test their martial art against another or they wanted to challenge a “master”.  It was either done in spite or honest devotion of improving.  He made sure his students were prepared for this after their graduation.  This was also a time when TaiJi Quan was at its peak.   Well-known Tai Chi masters took on these challenges all the time and even exchanged their knowledge to the challenger.  The kung fu style I learned was developed this way during the same time period oddly enough.

Today, you’ll be lucky if you can find a school that does some form of sparing.  Most teachers only teach martial arts because it presents well and they can make money .  A serious structured training school is hard to find, as there’s just no demand (or money) in it.  Parents are looking for a place to either drop off their kids for a while so they can get some peace and quiet or it’s a social gathering for after school activities. 

Shifu Nic Baker, a colleague from Albuquerque NM, did a great talk about the martial arts business model during our last convention a month ago.  He said that this kind of schools do make a good amount of money and only taking a few months to get off the ground. You just need to have a good business plan and a large target audience.  However, these types of places are just for babysitting and do not actually practice serious martial arts. 

Someone that issues challenges in this day and age seems unconventional and out of date.  Besides, who wants to start fights in front of children? However, it should be viewed as a wakeup call.  Some people have become complacent in the superiority of their martial art style without proper training.  That can be dangerous when faced with a situation where you need to defend yourself (without a weapon.  My shifu says the gun is always the great equalizer).  Even self-defense classes are worthless unless you practice against someone regularly.

So, if you’re practicing martial arts for fun, have fun.  If you’re practicing martial arts to learn to fight, you’ll need to fight.  Gaining experience in what you want to achieve will take you further than just talking or reading about it.  Going back to the push hands challenger and the kung fu master, had the challenger practiced seriously, it’s a good bet he would have done something about that kick.