How Martial Arts Students should be taught: Part 2
This is where I start info dumping a lot of the sources and conclusions I’ve collated together over the years. My conclusion, or thesis if you will, is that traditional arts as seen in modern 1st world and 2nd world nations, particularly from the origin points of Korea or Japan although all arts suffer from this due to congregating influence vectors, has misaligned the rightful order and harmony that a student should progress from start to finish. In other words, I believe there is a more natural, more efficient, better training methodology than has been generally adopted by the rest of the world so far. This is not limited to one style or field of fighting, but to all styles, all fields, and all circumstances. That is in fact the point, if training does not positively affect all circumstances, the chaos of the butterfly wings, it is of limited use. I wish to accelerate, as much as humanely possible, a student’s progress from beginner to proficiency, and from proficiency to mastery.
First we’ll start with Bruce Lee’s journey. Bruce Lee grew up in the crime infested streets of Hong Kong, post WWII while it was still owned and controlled by the British. Hong Kong was a curious mix of Oriental (Chinese) and Western (British) customs. This was partially to account for Bruce Lee’s interest in dancing, such as chacha. But for Bruce Lee, of far greater importance was the fact that he couldn’t defend himself adequately against others. He sought out one of the most renowned fighters, with a great reputation, Yip Man to address this deficiency. Lee had heard that these wing chun students were fighting others on rooftops and was being taught by this great master from the Chinese communist/national war era. Bruce Lee thus began his Wing Chun journey much as many people do in America: learning how to take care of yourself and defeat rivals. When Bruce Lee moved to the US, he could no longer train in Gong fu or Wing Chun, because the US only had Korean or Japanese arts at the time. The Japanese are very good at exporting their cultural beliefs, just look at anime. Bruce Lee did not want to separate from learning the forms or methods of his teacher, but he was forced to anyways. And in so doing, Bruce Lee found it necessary to discover his own way, one way or another. You will find a primary source detailing these matters in the link. All of Bruce Lee’s writings, efforts, and training in the US (of himself and others) was sourced from Lee making use of what he learned from Yip Man (although it would be more accurate to say Yip Man was really a hands off kind of teacher) through a Western context and background. In effect, Lee had to discover his personal ownership of Wing Chun in a way that was exactly what Yip Man told him to do, but had not yet understand until he had to figure things out for himself with no teacher to rely on.
Hawkins Cheung grew up with Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. When Lee left for the US (due partially to the number of fights he was getting into), Hawkins Cheung stayed in Hong Kong and trained, since that was where all the Kung fu masters were. They weren’t in China, I can tell you that. Not during Mao’s death squad purging of all martial arts knowledge and users. Cheung’s development and relationship turned out to provide a clear insight into Bruce Lee’s pursuit of mastery.
I first came across the name of Hawkins Cheung not through the Bruce Lee connection but through a series of youtube tutorials produced by Cheung’s student, Jin Young (resident of LA, USA). Looking at Young or Chinaboxer’s youtube tutorials on Wing Chun, I found them pleasantly clear, simple to understand even for someone without any WC training, and very advanced in terms of elaborating on and drilling the internal precepts present in H2H. Jin Young can be said to be a very good and creative instructor: someone who teaches principles, not techniques. I became so impressed with his training methodology, communication, and his personal philosophy on martial arts, that I decided to look up his lineage, and that is where the name Hawkins Cheung first came up. And through Hawkins Cheung, I found his article on his training days with Bruce Lee and what he thought of Bruce Lee’s “external” methods paired with Lee’s shortened Wing Chun base. Both sources support the idea that Bruce Lee was in the process of achieving mastery, but died before he could synthesize, collate, and test his grand thesis. As a side note, Bruce Lee’s “first generation students” were Western boxers, judo users, and so forth. He used them as training partners, only teaching them enough for them to challenge and further Bruce Lee’s own skills. Lee at the time was not interested in teaching, but in learning and improving. Lee also got the habit from Yip Man and classical Chinese methods to “withold” knowledge. Meaning, he has a trick to make himself strong, and won’t tell it to his students, so as to preserve the mystic and power of the authority of the master. That is what Lee was against in his philosophical treatises, but at that time he was still habituated to certain methods that was used to teach Lee. This, curiously, resulted in the first generation students thinking that Bruce Lee “withheld the secrets of Wing Chun”. When in fact, I’m not even sure Bruce Lee knew what the secrets of Wing Chun were, based upon how Yip Man taught him. If you read Hawkins Cheung’s articles about how training was conducted in Hong Kong under Yip Man, you would understand why that is so. Hawkins Cheung even mentioned that Bruce Lee referred some of his first generation students (the hard core street fighting types) to Hawkins Cheung, for Cheung to help them out. Cheung attempted to do so, and worked them through much like Jin Young has, focusing on internal principles, body structure, and what not.
When I touched their hands, I found that Bruce didn’t teach them the way he developed body power from wing chun. So, I tried to teach them the fundamentals of how to develop Bruce’s power. There are no secrets. First, you have to connect your body as one unit. Then you should develop it with a partner who tries to interrupt your unit by pulling, pushing and other types of physical interruptions. If you can manage physical interruption without disrupting your body unit, then you can talk about separating your unit into individual parts. If you don’t like physical interruptions (i.e., punches, kicks, etc.), then you may move your unit away before the punch or kick arrives. If you can do this, you can then move on to attacking techniques. You can also speak of unit attack with the body or either individual parts (arms or legs). For Bruce, every punch or kick had unit or body power behind it. This ability is something that you either have or don’t have.
The reader may ask, what is the difference between unit body power and individual power? When you punch at your partner during practice, your technique is usually delivered with your individual (arm) power. When you punch to destroy your opponent, the technique is delivered with body connection power. Techniques to impress your friends are delivered with speed and timing; techniques to destroy your opponent are delivered with speed, timing and body connection. Again, using my analogy of a hammer and nail, you have your choice. You can throw a nail and injure your opponent, or hammer the nail forward to kill him. When Bruce threw his punches and kicks, he used his body as a hammer.
When Bruce’s first-generation students came to me, I tried to teach them how to develop this unit power. Unfortunately, they did not believe me. Because I did not immediately teach them wing chun techniques, they felt I was keeping the knowledge to myself. Since then, I have kept my mouth shut. Whenever people talk about Bruce, I just walk away. These students wanted wing chun techniques and feeling. To me, the wing chun techniques are of secondary importance. Techniques can be learned from any wing chun teacher. However, without body connection and physical development, the techniques become useless.–Hawkins Cheung
As I interpret it, “unit power” is similar to kinetic linking that produces explosive/shock type power transfers that tend to disrupt a person’s nerves, organs, and spine in the torso. Whole body power is thus “gravity fueled” strikes that penetrates like a hammered nail. Hawkins Cheung is a user of both Wing chun and Taiji Chuan now, and is 100 pounds. This is the person that matched or exceeded Bruce Lee’s own fighting capabilities, born of the same development and experiences in their early days. Remember that, when you think about his words. Because Bruce Lee gathered many external martial artists around him, you could see the results when those external martial arts met a person that could teach them the “secrets” of internal power, and they rejected Cheung’s training because it didn’t look like it had any practical or “external use”. Always be aware of the limitations of thinking in external fashions.
The fundamental problem people faced with Bruce Lee, Hawkins Cheung, and even Yip Man, was mastery and education of students. If you obtain mastery, which is defined as the freedom to express your will and desire physically through fighting movements and consequences, how then do you get a student to the same level if the student is constantly copying what you tell them? Is that really freedom? Yip Man tried to solve this by taking a hands off approach and telling his students “don’t trust me, figure it out yourself via external tests such as rooftop fights”. Hawkins Cheung solved it by focusing on internal principles first, and using that as a base toolbox to provide the student with the tools to do whatever project the student wanted to do. Check out Chinaboxer’s youtube tutorials if you wish to see the inside look at the Hawkins Cheung methodology.
Dan Dj. of Traditional Fighting Arts put it in this fashion:
I believe that for a complex physical activity, “kitchen training” is vital. I’ve come to the view that it is mostly during such movement that one “beds down” important kinaesthetic principles, mapping neural pathways in the brain and grooving actions and angles/planes of movement so that they become second nature; so that they become truly a part of you. In other words, “kitchen training” is where you start to “own” certain techniques/movements. It is here that they go from being something that someone else might do, to something that you do. And something that you do spontaneously.
Think about it: if the only time you practised cricket batting was during formal practice at the nets or during a match, what hope do stand against someone who is constantly – even in idle moments – refining their batting action?
I’m fairly sure that if you did a poll of the world’s top sportsmen and women you’d find that “kitchen training” was a common element. I have yet to meet a golf player who doesn’t occasionally swing away at an imaginary golf ball with an umbrella; a soccer player who doesn’t grab the nearest ball – even a tennis ball – and start bouncing it on his or her knees and feet; a basketballer who doesn’t twirl and otherwise play with a kid’s plastic ball. And so it goes…..
The important thing is to let your mind “deconstruct” what you’re learning; to take it apart and reassemble it in myriad ways. It is this subconscious process that allows you to “take ownership” of the “form” of your art – to make it truly part of you so that it is no longer something that is “imposed upon you” but rather something that emanates from you reflexively.
Sanko over at his blog wrote this about a similar subject:
A first degree black belt asked me a while back that we drill in some specific techniques more regularly because it seems like every night I teach I teach something different. I was quite surprised at this because in my mind I’m teaching only a small handful of things—a small ensemble of the same basic principles. It may seem that I’m teaching hordes of techniques, but that is because I’m not confined to any single technique. I’m working from the same principles. Yet it is also true that I can do this because I have, over the years, drilled in many techniques until they have become comfortable. Only because I don’t have to think about them do they flow. For me simplicity comes from moving from principles. For beginners, however, it is often difficult to do this. They first need to build up a repertoire of conditioned techniques, and only then can they start to express themselves freely. Like a maestro musician that makes her free expression of the music she plays look so simple and unfettered, this is only possible because she had put in the thousands of hours of drilling scales and other difficult training that now shows the fruit of her labours.
All the martial arts students, users, and practitioners that are either on the road to mastery or are already there for the most part, say pretty much the same thing. They may “sound” different because they are talking about different contexts from their own personal viewpoint, but to me they are all saying pretty much the same. They have very similar skill sets, in terms of overall awareness, technique deconstruction, and technique composition. They don’t have 1000 tools in their toolbox, which they have to check off in a fight against every conceivable problem or threat. They instead have a simple tool they use all the time. Or they have found that if they combine a few tools into a Magical Swiss Army Knife, that it can solve a lot of things all at the same time. They have simplified the chaos of combat and fighting down to something they personally own. This is the “Ri” in Shu-Ha-Ri. The mooye in TKD. The level of mastery all martial artists, whether they know it or not, desire to achieve. Whether you, personally, think you have achieved mastery is irrelevant, since compared to a beginner or even a 1st/2nd dan black belt, you are obviously well on the road, far ahead of them. That gap is real, and it is very hard to surmount for many students and users.
I believe it is very hard to surmount because of the structure in which martial arts is currently being taught generally. Special instructors, those that can teach as well as excel in doing (such as Sun Tzu or Miyamoto Musashi) are the rarest of the rare. But depending on them, depending on them as your teacher and instructor, isn’t going to help the rest of the billions of this planet achieve real skill in a realistic timeframe. In Part 3 I plan to address something closer to a natural progression on the road to proficiency and mastery. Plus a mountain full of links to kung fu history.