TMCA: What's In A Name? (Identity in Martial Arts)

First paid publication: Kung-Fu Tai Chi Magazine - March/April 2012

First paid publication: Kung-Fu Tai Chi Magazine - March/April 2012

I began my study of martial arts in 1994. Years later when I garnered more experience and had a question, like any other self-respecting traditional Chinese martial artist, I asked the internet. More specifically, I went onto the Kung-Fu Forums ran by Kung-Fu/Tai Chi Magazine.

In this jungle I found two main themes amongst other smaller ones: practitioners were looking for help making their martial art effective in a sparring scenario, while others were posturing that only they had the real and true version of their chosen system or style.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, I believe that learning a traditional martial art is not synonymous with learning how to fight. That doesn’t make such an endeavour a waste of time, however. But if a practitioner of Wing Chun Kung-Fu had some honest questions about pressure testing their art what better place to go than a discussion forum filled with a bunch of experts, albeit self-proclaimed?

That’s Not Wing Chun
One of the differences between western and eastern martial arts is how they are viewed. Western martial arts are often viewed in terms of how they function. Eastern martial arts are often viewed in terms of how they look. The inverse also seems to be true: western martial arts don’t care how they look, while eastern martial arts don’t care how, or if, they function.

Shapes are what distinguishes one Chinese martial art from another. A snake and crane style will look a lot different than a monkey style when comparing their one- and two-man forms. This ability to look the part is what I believe blinds the Kung-Fu practitioner and allows them to create a flippant response to anything that doesn’t look the way they think it should.

It’s like accents and singing: humans may have an accent when they speak but they often sound the same when they sing. Humans have two arms and two legs and can perform countless forms that mimic animals, but fighting looks like fighting looks like fighting.

Wo Shi Shei?

If I practice a martial art that has forms, drills and exercises that mimic a snake and crane I will identify with that. I practice Wing Chun, a branch of Kung-Fu that comes from the Red Junk Opera troupes. Check out my lineage, it’s legit. It’s the same as Bruce Lee’s lineage. Ip Man movies? Yup. That’s my Great-Great-Grandmaster of Almightiness…

If I spar or fight and it doesn’t look like the shapes I’ve been practicing, where is my identity? What can my ego attach itself to? Who am I?

If I cross-train in Jesse Glover’s Non-Classical Gung-Fu am I still a Kung-Fu man? Have I stepped too far away from the path put forth by the forum-goers? “That’s not Wing Chun!” they scream, to make me feel as guilty as a dog who chewed the paper off the roll.

If I cross-train in boxing am I still a Kung-Fu man? “You’ve had to resort to another striking art. Surely your teacher or lineage or approach is garbage because you can’t make your Wing Chun work!” they taunt, trying to bring me back into the clique.

If I cross-train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu am I still a Kung-Fu man? “You don’t even train Kung-Fu anymore!” they scream, expunging me from the inner circles.

When I finally got to train with Suki Gosal, I remember the conversation we had the night he arrived. He asked, “What do you hope to learn from spending time with me? What do you want to get out of the training?”

I thought for a quick moment. My answer was mine and mine alone. I could have asked to learn the Hei Ban Wing Chun movements. I could have asked for all the super-secret Kung-Fu skills. Instead, I thought about the shackles the martial arts community had placed me in - that I had allowed them to place me in by me putting my trust and faith into them. Instead,

“I want you to help me be free so I can express myself,” I said.

Kenton Sefcik