Cultural dis-assimilation in Chinese martial arts Some years ago, as I was sat eating dinner with some fellow wushu students and Chinese friends, a Mainland Chinese man commented to me that a Westerner could never truly become an expert in Chinese martial arts due to inability to fully understand native Chinese culture. Obviously, I should have just knocked him out – for the comedy value – but also obviously I wasn’t going to do that. Besides, one of the things that irks me so deeply these days is the corrupt idea that true or false is decided on who wins a fight about it. Does two plus two equal five? Let’s fight about it… who wins decides… No, truth always comes out true, whether you beat me up or not. We had a bit of a ‘discussion’ on the subject, but while I was pretending to be interested, mentally I simply ditched every unnecessary aspect of Chinese culture involved in my martial arts practice. (Actually, the whole process took a few months of slowly evolving awareness of the truth, but that was the real start point.) It felt good. It was a freedom, and I thank that guy for being so obviously ignorant just at the right time. Funny because a lot of other people thought he was a really cool, interesting guy – and he probably was. He knew a lot about martial arts and other cool stuff. But he didn’t own me – he didn’t own or control what I had the potential to achieve in my life simply via his prejudice, so without hesitation, he was simply fired from my horizon. And there and then the relevance of his opinion, and everyone else’s that was based simply on prejudice, hubris or humbug, simply evaporated. And that was the starting point of my true journey to understand the art of Quan; naturally – the only real start point seems to be taking full and total responsibility for your own training, opinions and direction. And so that’s going to be the start point of my articles. Many of the ideas I’m going to write about I already know are deeply controversial. I hope, though, that as the series goes on, people will understand my real intentions, and love of Quan, and hopefully see the same use in the ideas I present as they offered to me, in my training. Back to that Chinese dinner guest and his ‘opinion’. See, if I didn’t accept his opinion as relevant, it didn’t have any relevance. Simple as that. Many times in life since I’ve realised the same – that a person’s opinion (mine, yours, or anyone’s) is just one out of eight billion. You can get a few thousand to believe anything at all, and a few thousand more to believe the opposite. Everyone has an opinion – it’s just a matter of what value that opinion has, or, in this case, seeing what it is that makes them think that their opinion has value. I actually had to believe that that opinion mattered for it to have any meaning, just like the celebrated British martial artist Steve Morris had to believe that the opinions of Japanese martial artists were superior to his for them to have any power over him. When he realised that they weren’t superior opinions, that seems to be when he started realising his own potential, if I’ve read him right. At some point you have to recognise when the idea (be it an opinion, respect for a teacher or art etc.) that had the power to motivate you to get somewhere, once you’re there, then, if it wasn’t actually all it was cracked up to be, only has the power to keep you there. That’s how you know it’s a dead end – really wise ideas always seem to keep unfolding on to ever deeper levels, while superficial ideas just seem to come to a natural death. To move on you have to take control of your own path/opinions/direction. Obviously. That doesn't necessarily mean becoming your own coach - it could just as easily mean knowing when to move on and find a new coach or club. In martial arts especially there is often a false parent/child relationship with teachers. Sometimes that’s wholesome – everything in martial arts seems to have a good, wholesome version, and a (usually far more popular) corrupt ‘evil twin’ version… but often it holds people back. A good ‘parent’ knows when to allow the boy to become a man. If the teacher doesn’t allow you to grow up and take control of your own training – well, sometimes, like a teenager escaping over protective parents, you have to have the gumption to take over your own life. And by far the biggest part of that is realising that you can – that you, and really, only you, can grant yourself permission to take over control of your training, your opinions, your direction. Personally, I quite happily ditched the idea that just because that dinner guest was Chinese his opinion mattered. See, that guy didn’t actually practice martial arts – he just thought that his opinion superseded mine, based on his ethnicity. It was nothing to drop all that stuff – it was like I’d clung on to a wall, fearing a thousand foot drop, but when I actually let go I flew. What I was left with was simply the physical training methods and techniques. I dropped the Chinese words, much of the Chinese traditions, the mysticism, the faux-Chinese nonsense, the titles – like Sifu and Master – the lineages… everything that wasn’t either a physical training method/technique, or a training specific idea or useful guideline just became irrelevant – or, actually funny - to me. (I think a lot of people, if we’re honest – that greatest of crimes ‘telling the truth’ – cling to all that stuff not out of any good or honourable motive, but simply out of sheer ego; they call others ‘Master’ and buy in to all of that solely because ultimately they’re grooming themselves for being called master and being treated with deference in their own turn. That’s actually an entirely selfish motivation for doing all that stuff, and highlights a weak ego in my view.) Stripped from all of that, what you’re left with is a very natural, physical art with no cultural baggage whatsoever. So much for only Chinese people being able to understand it; any human could understand it as long as they had a body and a mind. If they couldn’t, then it can’t be this amazing idea of ‘Quan’ – this natural human ability that we can access through correct training methods. If you need to be Chinese or Japanese to get it, then it can’t be the real, essential skill of Quan, or ‘Te’ or Silat or Boxing. It’s got to be a natural thing, not a cultural thing. In some ways, it’s a shame, because learning about another culture can be a fun part of martial arts training. It’s not like I’m racist. It’s not like I felt that ‘Chinese-ism’ was in some way ‘tainting’ my practice. Quite the opposite, really – it’s racism that I was listening to; racism that says that Westerners either can’t ever fully understand wushu, or can’t ever fully ‘be’ wushu experts. It’s racism when a wise, considered Western opinion is dismissed ‘on the grounds’, such as they are grounds, that someone in China says, or thinks, something else. And yes, that does happen, many times, in many ways. It’s racism when it’s assumed that no matter what, a Westerner can’t possibly know as much as someone from China, and a Western opinion is never as relevant as a Chinese opinion. That’s racism, but racism itself is only a tentacle, or product, of a far deeper, core evil – the death of reason. Reason, logical discourse, understanding how to find real truth free from fallacies and muddied thinking – these are hugely powerful cultural aspects of Western culture, and profound, positive tools of human goodness and progress, now sadly under attack from the forces of ignorance. For example, it’s the death of reason when the truth of what someone says is made dependant on who they learned from, what level they have, who they could beat in a fight, or whether they contradict someone from another culture on a general issue. If you’re right you’re right. If you’re crap you’re crap. You can’t argue truth in to lie, or lie in to truth – now matter how you twist the equation, truth still comes out true at the end, and lie still comes out as lie. But I believe – and you can disagree all you want – that it’s not possible to find the real meaning of wushu or ‘the essence of Quan’ without reason, as in the art of rational thinking. And reason requires honesty. Actually, if we’re honest, the West is the world leader in fighting martial arts. In boxing, MMA, Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling, kick-boxing, the West excels, and consistently produces the vast majority of the world’s foremost combat martial artists and combat training methods. To even become world class martial artists, Chinese martial artists have had to adopt training methods from Western boxing, MMA, BJJ, etc. In many ways, the insight of Westerners in to fighting arts and training methods is required to make Chinese arts more realistically workable in the modern martial arts world. However, it’s not a cultural issue. For me, any Westerner wanting to achieve a real insight in to wushu is necessarily going to need to similarly culturally dis-assimilate unnecessary Chinese-culture aspects in their training. Otherwise, on the one hand you’ll never feel like you, as who you really are, is good enough to ‘be’ an expert, simply because you’re not Chinese, and on the other, no one else will ever accept what you say unless you, despite all your personal efforts and achievements, are given ‘credibility’ via your association with someone Chinese. Either way, it’s a kind of racism that says only Chinese people can grant you credibility. Well, that steals away from people their own achievements and abilities. Worse, it allows people who have a low level to pretend to be great martial artists based simply on who their teacher was – again, ‘the death of reason’. Or it allows them to dismiss the opinions of others, based simply on who was taught by whom, as opposed to investigating the truth of things according to their own merits. And that’s simply not acceptable – not because of ethnic implications (it’s actually nothing to do with that) but because of simple practical, developmental implications. Westerners have to be able to develop Quan in new directions. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the West is the true hope of Quan, because in the West, new, scientific training methods, sports and combat science, regular MMA style competitions etc., are integral aspects of our martial arts cultural milieu. Whereas, in China, there are still many superstitions, prejudices, irrelevant and outdated practices preventing Quan from developing further. Which brings us back to the start. What right do Westerners have to say such things? What right do we have to ‘develop’ wushu, or comment on what’s wrong with it? Well if we haven’t any right, or can’t ever have that right, what’s the point in even practicing an art that we can never be good enough at (or appropriately ethnically origined) to develop further? Actually, I think it’s in the West that Quan will reach its zenith – but that won’t happen as long as non-Chinese feel that they can’t develop full mastery, and take the art in new directions, or, indeed, if they falsely feel that their level or opinions can be elevated simply by virtue of who they were taught by. It’s really just a mental block, but it’s a block that is consistently reinforced via Sino-centric prejudice. Well, simply strip away all unnecessary cultural baggage, and you’ll find that those concerns are stripped away with it. Wushu comes from China, but belongs to the world. If you practice diligently, then it’s your art, your wushu, your Quan. It’s not owned by anyone else, certainly not by any other culture. The real power of Quan is that it is based on, and harnesses, natural factors of physics and physiology, not cultural factors of dogma or tradition. Cultural dis-assimilation is a kind of sadness – but, it doesn’t in any way diminish the Chinese origin of the art, or the Chinese wushu – nor does it mean that there’s nothing left to learn from Chinese experts, or that Westerners can’t maintain an interest in Chinese culture. In fact, far be it from me to tell anyone to do anything – I write this from an entirely practical point of view, as in, dismantling the blocks, as I see them, to further development of the art, ultimately leading to deeper exploration and expression of something deeply valuable to the culture of the planet – the profound art of Quan. What ‘cultural dis-assimilation’ means to you is up to you. For me, it means that sure, sometimes I’d wear traditional uniforms for competitions, but I won’t otherwise become faux-Chinese. Sure, I’ll continue to struggle to learn Chinese, but I’ll also always maintain that if something is true, it’s true in all languages and cultures – truth can’t be culturally specific. And it means that I can add my own ideas in to the mix, and have them judged according to their value and results, not dismissed according to my ethnicity or who I was taught by. It simply means that we feel comfortable developing it in to new areas. ‘Brazlillian’ Jiu Jitsu now rolls off the tongue smoothly. One day, Western Quanshu, or a style named after a mid-American town, will sound similarly fine. Personally, I like the term ‘Contemporary Quanshu’ to indicate modern Chinese martial arts as being developed further all over the world.