How Did People Practice in China Before?

By Hai Yang


           I had many opportunities to study and meet with many famous masters.


            When I talked with them, I always asked them different questions: how did you learn? How did you practice? How did you teach and how did your students make progress? And so on.


            Before 1949, there were a lot of schools and full time teachers. How did they teach? Did they have a studio like here in North America? The answer is mostly No. In China, people lived in houses, and most houses had a yard, called (Yuan Zi in Chinese). Usually, teachers taught students in parks, and, they would invite students to go to their home to teach them more when the time was right. That is different between in-door students and out-door students, usually.


            After 1949, Chinese government began to promote Government sponsored martial arts. Since back to that period of time, the government wanted to make martial arts as a sport in order to improve the physical and health situation of Chinese people, to save health care expenses and other reasons. The original intention was very good and it had very valuable result later on. But just like any things in the world: there will be a side-product or bad-aspect when there are good aspects. So what is the bad impact of this idea? It is that the traditional way of practice which encourages the martial practice had been ignored. The traditional style became a kind of out-dated practice in many people's minds. This is why the new Chinese generations do not know traditional styles too much. After decades of misunderstanding, people confused Wushu (the official named martial arts) with the traditional practices, thinking there is no difference between them, which is not true.


            So, after 1950s, almost all of the styles in China have a Wushu version. And students began to learn it in schools, universities, and mostly, the teachers were getting paid.


           At the same time, traditional styles were still pursuing a parallel development. Many masters still taught their students in the traditional way, in parks or homes, without big gyms or government backing. The teachers treated students as their own children, and students treated each other like brothers and sisters.


            But since the last decade, the situation of traditional teaching is changing. Since the notion of paying to learn from teachers is more popular, teaching is starting to become a business. Therefore the quality of teaching and learning is also changing because there is money involved. The family aspect and the traditional martial arts teaching have been changing a lot too.


              How did teachers teach?

             Traditionally, in China, teachers would not teach you new movements before your practice of the present ones was good enough. Teachers controlled the progress of the teaching and learning. That is the traditional way of teaching. Students were not allowed to ask more questions about it. And you would be asked to seek the answer to their own questions first when they asked teachers; "why?" Teachers in China wanted students to find something by themselves, because so much more is learned when left to personal demise.


            Also, if the answer is given right away, we have this problem: when students know an answer from teachers, they will think that they are able to do the movements as well as the teacher, will not practice more. Understanding something is different from being able to do something.


            When I teach, I like my students to ask me the questions. Because it helps me understand more the questions people have in North America. Since English is my second language, and that I teach in this language, I sometimes do not know if my teaching is clear or not. This is the only reason I permit my students to ask me this many questions. Every so often, I do not feel very comfortable facing some questions. For example, one student asked me: "why don't I feel the force when I do this movement? " One reason could be that I teach wrong, but mostly, it's that he or she has not practiced enough. Just after I teach them and they started practicing 5 minutes, they begin to ask me questions about how to get the force...

            How did students practice?


            Different people have different experiences. Thus, I would like to share a personal experience. When I learned martial arts, I began learning from my grandfather and my uncle. So those were easier times for me. I could do whatever I wanted. I could ask them questions without any problems.


            But, I also had experiences of learning from many others masters.


            Most of the time, I was not allowed to ask questions, so I just practiced what they told me repeatedly and repeatedly. And used all chances I had to look at the demonstration and practice of my teachers. I trained my brain to be like a camera, to memorize their movement, their teaching. I remember beginning to be allowed to go to one teacher's home (Mr.Hu) after learning from him for 6 months because he told me that I practiced seriously and I made obvious progress, although his home was so close to the park where he taught me. It was at most a 5 minutes walk from the park. Nevertheless, that meant I was allowed to learn more.


            Students have to practice stances correctly and long enough (not Horse Stance). Imagine this, When I learned Xing Yi with my grandfather, I had to practice a single-leg stance. So how to calculate the time? At that time, China was poor, and as a kid, I did not have watch, which is something very common now. In order to force myself, I calculated the number of cars passing by in front of me. I only changed stance when a certain number of cars had passed in the street. The thing is, at that time, it was in the evening, and so there was not a lot of cars circulating on the street... you can imagine that sometimes, I had to stand for a long time to change to the other leg before there were enough cars passed by in front of my sight...


            This was the training in China a while back. It is losing more seriousness and dedication as the economy of China is getting better and better. People are slowly losing the spirit of martial arts training in general. But I believe that one day, Chinese people will realize it and then, they will start to seek their losing treasure back, and I hope the day will come earlier.


* This article was written in 2003. Now, the traditional way of practice in China has been improving a lot in general.