The Question: What Makes it a Real Art?

This question has been asked for years. The answer could be biased, depending on whom you ask and whether or not they have a vested interest. When I have been asked, my answer is not like the ones I get from the martial arts magazines. I do not think that all those “Bruce Lee wannabes” or the 20 and 30 year olds have the knowledge or the time spent to be original. The history of the arts shows that the creators had decades as a fighter and teacher in order to have the experience. To create a “type” of boxing, it takes more than fighting in a tournament. One needs to have practical experience. In the modern world, in most cases, to do this you would be in serious trouble. Most people would go to the law if someone were to bang them up in order to prove a point. In the old days, in China town in Toronto, if two martial artists had a fight, it would not end up in court. I do believe that with the exception of Taiwan, probably this has changed. Not that I would want anyone running around, as in the old days, but it did prove an arts value.

Other than going to find a bare fist event in Asia, like the old one in Taiwan, you are stuck with using different criteria. First of all, can the “creator” prove, by more than words, that qualified teachers taught him other arts? Now, if they are from China, they should have a letter of introduction, and at the very least, a picture of them with their teacher. Even then, one should check them out. In the event, that there are no family halls or Chinese clubs, it is simply a matter of sending a letter to the boxing association of their particular style…they will tell you. Now, lets assume that all is in order. With enough time and experience, it is possible for someone to invent his own ways. But how many will do this, with no knowledge and hype? Only the dedicated and intelligent would probably go to the trouble to check it out. However, you should. I have seen the “weird and wonderful world” of self defense courses being taught. To tell the truth, most of the things being taught are dangerous! It is putting people into a frame of mind that tells them that they can protect themselves against guns, knives and such. This false sense of security is extremely dangerous!

A real art is one that has history and has survived at a time when people had to use it…not something that comes from someone intent on showing off or displaying what would look good in a movie. It takes decades to be really good. Just like a western boxer, who goes up through the ranks…so should a real martial artist. When you are young, you find an art that has proven itself over the years. If you are lucky, you may find a real one. Why? There are many reasons. In order to be competitive, your school has to be in style. As an example, Chinese schools were always small, until the Bruce Lee fad came to be. Then, all of a sudden, we were out-growing our halls! At one time, I had more than 400 students and the school was open 7 days a week. In order to keep students in some of the other clubs, there were all kinds of Kung Fu signs being tacked up. Sometimes, myself and some of my students would go in to see the Kung Fu going on in some of these clubs, only to be told the teacher was not in. Funny thing…. he never was! They (the students of the club) tried to talk us into learning some Korean Karate instead. That was in Toronto, on Younge Street. Sometimes, you would see a lot of Japanese kata being done…trying to make it look Chinese and the over use of the Chinese terms being used in the wrong context. Some of these students are now teaching and do not realize that they are not real!

I did teach for a short time and try to make a living on it. I found out that in order to maintain an income, it was very difficult to stick to the rules. When you have to make a full time living from it, economics, all too often, rears its ugly head. More often than not, you find you are swayed to make a change that you would not have otherwise made, if you were not dependent on it for income. I had made many mistakes over the years that I would not make again. For instance, I found myself allowing the rules, that I had learned and followed, to be undermined. Because of this, I closed down after a few years and started to teach the way I had taught before. I did this in order to teach a real art! I did not have to make it easy or sell forms and rank. If a rule was broken, I could deal with it without thinking about what it would do to me financially. The training was harder and if the student couldn’t take it, he could leave. Each student had to follow a set of rules. For example, they had to be either a student in an academic school or have a regular job to go to. As well, they had to be the type of person that works well with other people. If they caused a problem, they were asked to leave. I have seen situations, in commercial operations that were out and out lies. Situations such as: following fads, complex payment systems being used in order to milk students, claims that were false and in some cases, clubs being run like a cult!

I have always told people to learn a trade or a profession and that if they want to teach martial arts, do it on the side. Then, if you want to teach a real art, you can teach it the way it is supposed to be taught…not the way the students want it. In the old days, if a student came in to learn, the classes were 2 or 3 hours long. If a student didn’t show up and had no good reason for missing class, they were let go. This, then, kept only the dedicated ones. The term martial art means “war art”. This means that it has no place in “tag” type tournaments. The only tournaments that allowed a person to fight, as he was supposed to, were in Asia. I am given to understand that now, however, they have mostly disappeared and have been replaced with games of tag. In most tournaments I have seen, and they are many, you would see a supposed “kung fu” student doing roundhouse kicks and flying whatsists and spinning dohickeys…none of which is in his style. I remember learning that sidekicks were to go no higher than the groin and the hands were to go to the head. Now, most of it is sport … not art. Not that there is anything wrong with sport, but don’t call it a “martial art”… they are not the same thing. In the early years, when people tried to use gloves and make contact, they had to learn to punch from a boxer. This was because the sport they learned did not teach anything but tag. Now, if you enjoy that sort of thing, fine… but do not think you are doing a martial art.

A martial art was not to learn to walk on water or to do the ice breaks or cut watermelons. The real art was to protect life and limb. It had nothing to do with trophies. When I started out, there were no tournaments and money didn’t factor into the arts. Now, however, all too often that is the main goal and the real art has died. I did all the tricks more than 20 years ago to feed my ego and to get students, but I would tell the people watching that walking on glass or cutting a watermelon was only a circus performance. No one gets attacked by a frozen lake or a vicious watermelon…people attack people! The purpose of a martial art is to learn how to deal with the worst in a human being. If you never need to use it…great, but if you do, make sure you are taught by someone that has done more than wrap a belt around his or her middle. Otherwise, you too can be one of those martial artists who end up in trouble because, like them, you have been “swimming on dry land”. Most of the people I have met from China are not professional martial arts teachers, but are in a profession. It is fine to teach and fine to learn, but make sure you really know what is real.
Pak Mei Pai