By Hai Yang
In the course of teaching Chinese martial arts in Canada I have had the opportunity to respond to many questions regarding Chinese martial arts and culture. I would like to share some of the more frequently asked questions and my answers:
Question1: In China, do people have to be very good in order to teach?
Answer: Yes, they do. In China you have to be very good in order to teach Chinese martial arts. Unfortunately, like anywhere else, some people teach even though their skills are not up to par. The world is changing, and China is changing with it. I have seen people teaching in China who are not really qualified to be teaching martial arts. They may be able to get students, but they will never be accepted within the martial arts community. They are only accepted by their own students, "kings" within their own little kingdoms.
In traditional China if you taught martial arts you were prone to being challenged. In those days the losers of such challenges would not bother going to the authorities if they lost a challenge match - usually both parties signed a waiver of liability for injury or death, and the winner and loser were clear for all to see. In addition, losing was a loss of face, and the loser would generally leave the area.
In today's China, such challenge matches are not allowed. Still, people are generally careful about to assume the role of teacher, since there are still cultural traditions that act as unwritten rules - you have to be qualified to teach, and you need to be able to demonstrate that you can use your martial art.
Question 2: In China, can someone teach without permission of his master or teacher?
Answer: Generally speaking, no. In China it is the general rule that a disciple must request permission before teaching. This is a way of insuring the quality of instruction, and also a matter of fact for the teacher, people will know if a student is skilled or not when he teaches publicly, and his skills reflect on his teacher as well.
In the West, it is difficult for most beginners judge the quality of instruction they are receiving. In addition, much of what is available is for public consumption, and heavily dependent on marketing flashy uniforms or costume and dramatic posturing takes the place of demonstrations of real skill. The general public does not know the difference, and may be impressed by showmanship.
The situation is more difficult in the case of Qigong instruction. While there are visible clues to martial arts skills, Qigong gives no outside clues to the general observer. This is a problem, as Qigong taught or trained incorrectly can have disastrous health effects. In China the reputation of a Qigong teacher may rest on his ability to treat diseases and the health and longevity of his students. In the West, there are no real standards to go by.
Question 3: What does disciple mean in the Chinese martial art community?
Answer: Discipleship is very a serious topic in China. Only the student gets accepted by the master will become a disciple. So there are two kinds of relations: student and disciple. Student means that someone is learning from the master and the master teach the student the regular materials. The disciple will be totally different: they will learn the special materials, which are considered as the important practice of each school.
Most of time, the master will teach the students the popular materials, or the materials which students would like to learn. But to disciple, the master will design for them specifically.
People may say it is unfair because everyone should be treated equally. Yes, it is true, but only in theory. Since disciple will not put the same effort compare to normal student, they will be treated differently too. In China, people earn the way how to get treated, not ask to be treated as the way they expected. I think it is the same in other countries.
The disciple comes with time too. No matter how good the person's practice is, before following the master for years, that person cannot be a disciple. In the west, people use the word disciple very easily in the martial art community. Some people just went to China in a trip and when they come back, they become a disciple of some famous masters. Actually, these people are playing the game between the two cultures: to Chinese, they will give them a piece paper since Chinese masters are asked to offer a certain proof of showing that some people learned from them. But when they come back to the west, people here will think that these people get the certificate of teaching or discipleship. It is totally wrong. That piece of paper does not mean anything beyond a record of learning. In China. That is not a proof of discipleship at all. Because the timeline is too short, please do not get confused between a certificate of learning and proof of discipleship.
Discipleship needs certain ceremony in China. That is the traditional way, and people still follow it now. People can buy certificate but they cannot buy discipleship, because the price is different: certificate can be bought by paying money; discipleship only can be bought by paying effort.
Question 4: What people dress in the martial art community in China?
Answer: they dress very casually. They only dress special uniform for taking pictures or for participating public event. They will not wear silky clothing every day. When people practice, they will sweat a lot, that kind of silky uniform are not strong enough for daily washing. In movies, people always dress beautiful uniform when they practice martial art. But in the real life, it is not the same. Most of time, masters just dress as same as other students when they teach, even not as well as their students since they will sweat more.
Furthermore, wearing a beautiful uniform will not make their practice better.
In the west, image is so important that people would like to dress special when they practice martial art. Or some people need to set up a kind of mindset before they do physical practice. That is the personal choice. But in my opinion, people should dress casual and comfortable in order to practice well.
Question 5: Do people salute to each other before they practice?
Answer: I do not think so. People need to respect each other from their heart, not from a certain kind of movement or action. For sure it is good to show some respect with manner. But in China, people will not do anything in the martial art community beyond normal behavior.
In the west, some school makes salute very complicated, it seems almost a small form or routine. When I saw it here in the first time, i was confused between their demonstration and salute. I thought they were doing a kind of routine before talking to each other.
I believe that the human being is the same that people know what the real respect is and what is not.
Question 6: In China, people will modify form easily?
Answer: No. In China, any traditional forms cannot be modified by anyone easily. Forms and routines are from years of development by many masters in many generations, each single movement in the routines has a specific reason. It is not something about lacking of creativity. Only some people in very high level can modify certain routine and form with the approval of others.
In the west, some practitioners often change the forms according to their personal favorite. Their excuse always is: "well, I feel it is better for me to practice like this." This type of mentality is just wrong. I am a Chinese, even though I do not speak good English. But I cannot say "well, I feel it is better for me to speak English like this." It will be the same mistake if I say like that.
Please forget your personal preference, and please keep the way how your master teaches you.
Question 7: In China, can people make new styles easily?
Answer: No, it can be very hard to make new styles. Since any style is not only some movements, but also other important aspects too, such as theory, applications, weapon forms. Any style in China is about certain system. Only making one or two new routines or new forms can not make up a whole package of a system. More important, they have to pass many different levels of challenges to be accepted by the martial art community.
Let's look back to last century, there is only one new style of martial art has come out, it is Yi Quan, the style created by Wang Xiangzhai based on Xing Yi. Besides that, there have been no other styles can be considered as a new system. This is why there are not so many new "do" in the Chinese system like in the west.
Questions 8: Some people said that in mainland of China, traditional martial art has disappeared after the Culture Revolution since all of the traditional masters had been killed. Is it true?
Answer: It is not true. There is one of the biggest martial art lie some people made in this century, it has been just like that people believed that martial art masters can fly after they watched Kung Fu movies. The history is: before 1949, there were years of brutal civil war. There were two parties competed with each other, one is Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party; the other one is Gongchandang, or the Chinese Communist party. After years' battle, the Communist Party won the war and the lost one, which is the Chinese Nationalist Party, fled to Taiwan. A few masters who either worked for Kuomintang or got involved in some illegal cult (like Yiguandao) moved to Taiwan, such as Zhang Junfeng, Zheng Manqing, Sun Xikun, Wang Shujin. But most of martial art masters still remained in mainland of China. Since most of martial art masters did not get involved politics at all. During the 10 years' Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), some famous masters got killed by Red Guard. But most of the masters did not get killed at all. They still could teach martial art with small groups of students.
From 1949 to 1966, the Chinese Communist government even tried to make martial art as one of the national sport, which encouraged more people to practice. In some way, from 1949 to 1966, it was another blossom time to traditional martial arts. The only bad part of that period of time was the government trying to make the standardized form for each style in order to promote it more. So the traditional practice and the standardized practice were developed in parallel at the time.
The Cultural Revolution was a national disaster, many elite Chinese who had different political or other opinion to government got treated badly and unfairly. But most martial art masters were not in that scope which government would focus on. So many masters still managed to keep their teaching. I have experienced it in person.
After 1976, Chinese martial art got another spring time. Many endangered styles got to survive since people began to realize that the traditional practice was important. It is the real history.
However, in the west, since there is an ideological conflict between the capitalist and communist, people eventually put ideological ideas into martial art practice. The rumor from Taiwan and other places outside of China said that the Communist Party killed all of the traditional masters and traditional practice in mainland of China disappeared. So that they can say that the traditional practice existed in Taiwan or somewhere else instead of the mainland of China.
Please think of this: if the Communist government killed all of the masters, they would be too busy to do that. And it was not their main interest to kill martial art people since martial art masters did not have the political influence at that time. It was no use to kill them.
But why did they make this rumor? In martial art community, there has been thousands of years that people want to get the title of being authentic or authoritative. If all of the mainland Chinese martial art masters got killed, it means that the real martial art practice will be remained in Taiwan or some other places. It is just for their own commercial purpose.
At the same time, many westerns studied martial art from people from Taiwan or Hong Kong when mainland of China stops communicating with the west. It was good that some Chinese practice still kept going on in the western countries between 1949 to 1980s. But it is not necessary to make the political and ideological rumors for their own personal interests.
In my opinion, martial art practitioners should focus on practice instead of focusing on making rumor, twisting the truth or changing the history.