Lessons from the Chinese

jow ga shrine
Jow Ga Shrine in Guandong, China

Last night I was talking to Sifu Howard Davis, a Si Hing (older brother) in my Jow Ga Kung Fu family, about the state of the skill level in our system 20 years ago versus today. Howard was lamenting the fact that although each generation seemed to improve from the last–until the 1990s, when it seemed to slide backwards–our system has a generation of developing students who have no relationship with the previous generation. Many of them actually believe that the previous generations have nothing to offer them, yet when they encounter a member of the older generation, they are amazed at our skill level. This is despite the fact that the newer generations had the benefit of more research, improved, efficient innovations, modern training tools and methods, and an increase in competition. I had noticed that it was true of the other arts, disciplines, and schools as well. In my mind, this is highly true of the Filipino martial arts. Not just here in America, but in the Philippines as well.

Now, I know that some feelings may be hurt by my saying this, but compare the overall skill of today’s expert to those of earlier generations… (be honest!)  There has been a great amount of skill and knowledge lost, in spite of the new technology.

I’d like to share one reason-one lesson-you can learn from the Chinese martial arts community, that even today’s Chinese martial artist should learn from his own art’s past. I believe that if you can incorporate this lesson into your own set of martial virtues and culture, you will see a great improvement within one generation.

dean chin
My Jow Ga Master, Chin Yuk Din Sifu

Not everyone in my Jow Ga family would admit this, but my Kung Fu master, Chin Yuk Din Sifu, had favorite students. Sure, tons of people came through Sifu’s doors and trained. Some even trained for years, but only a few can ever say they had training directly from Chin Sifu after the mid 1970s. There were several reasons for this (a topic for another post, btw), but the main reason is his understanding of the idea of the “Level 5 Leader” (again, a topic for another post). Anyway, Sifu taught only a few classes, and most of the time he taught was before or after classes, when the school was closed. I was one of those few who had received a lot of instruction from him because I hung around Raymond Wong, who was perhaps Sifu’s closes student. Although I was privileged to learn material that was not on the official curriculum, training was not similar to what you’ve seen in the movies. See, Sifu taught 5 – 10 techniques at a time (or less), and then he was done. Majority of training was spent in practice, while Sifu sat in the office sleep, smoking his pipe, or talking to the old heads. If you were one of the few who had Sifu’s attention, you were expected to be in the school 3 – 5 days a week and you’d better not rush home immediately after class! Saturday and Sunday class was from 10 – 12 p.m., then there was a sparring class from 1 – 3 p.m. Lucky for me, we had “Black Belt Theater” on Saturdays from 12 – 2 p.m! So after class we’d go into the office to watch Kung Fu movies, then back into the classroom to train.

This culture was not just for Dean Chin/Raymond Wong groupies. There were cliques within Jow Ga walls, and the leader of each clique thought the same way Sifu did:  train with me, then you should come to class every other day too. Everyone hung out at the school. Yes, some people, more than others, but there weren’t many students who only attended once or twice and went straight to the subway. Most of the students trained in the school more than twice a week, and then came on days when there was no class to work out anyway. As a result, most Jow Ga fighters–even beginners–were far above average in skill and physical ability. Sifu often checked attendance cards and would tear you a new one if you hadn’t attended classes enough.

In a nutshell, being a gymrat was expected of you; it was the corporate culture of Dean Chin’s Jow Ga. Dean Chin’s “Kung Fu man” ate, lived, breathed, and slept Kung Fu.

It isn’t just Jow Ga. Students training daily–even living at a martial arts school–is a *very* Chinese characteristic. Many Kung Fu schools in China have dormitories. Everywhere, students leave work or school and go to their Kung Fu masters before going home. You see, for these students, their martial arts is not an activity, for them it is a lifestyle.

So, can this work in a Western Society? Surely we cannot expect our students to spend all their free time at our schools. Can we duplicate the skill of a daily, full-time martial arts student in our own guys, who only train 2 or 3 days a week? Can we get our students, with their busy lives, careers, and family obligations, to spend more time training? Is it possibly to get our students to train with a passion like their seemingly fanatical counterparts?

Jow Ga co-founder Jow Biu
Jow Ga co-founder Jow Biu

Well, yes, yes, yes, and… yes.

To make it easier on my editor, I’m going to try to use a bulleted format:

–  Everyone wants good skill. and just like rowing long distance, the closer you get to the next island, the harder you will row. When your student see results and they see the light at the end of the tunnel, they will train harder. Basically, you will have to create the culture of rigorous training and skill attainment so that students will both achieve results and also realize that they are getting better. Most martial artist students do not believe that they will ever be one of the best, and this is why they don’t try too hard. For them, it is an impossible feat (in their minds). Students who believe that they are excelling will make the transition themselves from good to great!

–  You must designate times for free practice. In my school, we have 30 – 60 minute gaps in the schedule to encourage free practice. Often in class, you can have the students train themselves. This creates that culture of self-motivation we were talking about.

–  Make good use of training time. In an hour, your students can throw 150 strikes at 30% power or 1,000 strikes at 80% power. They can perform 10 pushups per class or 100 per class. You are the teacher; you control whether they train as if they were in a seminar or in preparation for a full contact fight. The better they get, the more serious training will become a part of their vocabulary. Even if they only saw you once a week, skill will increase greatly. Remember, as the teacher, YOU control how good they get.

–  Motivation and interest often comes from two places:  proficiency (self-realization of it, at least) and achievements and rewards. Too many schools, in my opinion, overemphasize achievement as a motivator for retention. I don’t believe that this is a good thing (or even that it works) because even the commercial schools are bottom-heavy and basically throw the Black Belt at students to get them to graduate. No one uses skill because it is too difficult to develop and most teachers lack the knowledge to make every student a good fighter. But if you can duplicate your skill level (or exceed it) in your students, they will push themselves to the next level. And you won’t even need to give false praise and premature promotions to get it.

So, what lesson did we learn, kids?

You need a tradition of creating gym rats–students who train, train, train and train some more. Use improving skill as a motivator to get students to work harder. Allot time for open (self) training. Always train them hard so they will get used to it, and really see a jump in their skill. When they see their skill and strength improving, you students will work harder and see their own success through.


Thank you for reading my blog… Please comment and check with us regularly!

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

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