In traditional martial arts circles, many students fall into the trap of fanatic devotion, seeing their teachers as infallible God-like figures. While such a mindset is often nothing more than dedication and good intentions that have become exaggerated over time, it has the potential to be downright harmful.
Recent years have seen a surge of fight challenges taking place throughout China and other parts of Asia. In these bouts amateur mixed martial artists (most notably Xu Xiaodong) have been taking on acclaimed ‘masters’ of traditional lineages. In many cases, followers and even referees have requested that the master of unimaginable skill ‘take it easy’ on their inexperienced opponents, trying not to injure them too badly. However, a large percentage of these bouts have ended in absolute defeat for the masters, usually lasting mere seconds.
This phenomenon of blind belief and devotion prompts us to question why, particularly in traditional martial arts, we hold ‘masters’ to such elevated standards. We wouldn't expect our high-school science teacher to solve equations like Einstein, so why do we demand martial artists to do the physical equivalents?
The answer, I contend, is multifaceted and rooted not only in why we learn but also in how we learn. This article will delve into some of the key factors at play.
Rules and Confucian Mindset
From the moment we step into a traditional martial arts class, there is an abundance of rules, guidelines, and environmental etiquette. While you may find similar aspects in other learning institutions, unless you are studying in a military school, they probably lack the same levels of discipline and rigor.
Asian learning principles are typically centered upon Confucian values which highlight respect and reverence of one’s teacher. While these are admirable goals, they also push students to learn in a way that considers them to be vessels for knowledge waiting to be filled from the teacher’s own pool. This is an obvious difference from current western pedagogical methods, which identify learning to be more effective as a collaborative experience.
Furthermore, in the Confucian-influenced classroom, to question your teacher is akin to an accusation that they are incorrect or lacking in skills or knowledge. With more than a decade of experience in Asian education systems myself, I have seen this firsthand, observing students literally bite their lips to stop themselves from correcting a teacher, despite knowing them to be wrong.
While Confucian educational methods certainly have their merits, all teachers (martial arts or otherwise) have gaps in knowledge, lack the ability to present certain skills or concepts effectively, or lack the flexibility to adapt and improvise when an aspect of their lesson is not working. Therefore, it is crucial that we question our teachers when lessons are unclear or illogical, rather than simply accepting knowledge at face value. This is especially true when something as important as our lives are on the line!
As a beginner stepping into a traditional martial arts class, you will see techniques that have been practiced thousands of times, often in a tightly controlled environment where both the performer and the receiver have been primed to act in a certain way. Unfortunately, this is not always done with realism in mind. For example, in Karate, Taekwondo and many other systems, ‘self-defense moves’ are often practiced with the attacker stepping forward with a perfectly straight punch towards the torso. Even the uniforms donned by students emphasize the cleanliness of the attack, making an audible snap with each crisp technique.
This type of choreographed ‘violence’ does have its place in training, teaching distance, timing, speed, reactions, and developing muscular strength. However, the average beginner does not know this and will often see these sterile examples of attack and defense as perfect responses to dangerous situations, thus lending the performers a perceived skill level far superior to actual fighting abilities. While it is only natural for students to want to believe that they are learning from the best of the best, we must not misconstrue the function of such demonstrations.
Using controlled environments is not inherently an issue, particularly for a teacher who needs to make a living and is simply representing their art well. However, I believe it is the responsibility of both dedicated students and teachers to venture beyond their comfort zones, engaging in training within unfamiliar settings and attire, or partaking in full-contact sparring or competitions from time to time. Even with strict rule sets and protective gear, the knowledge that your opponent (hopefully of a similar skill level) is going to do his best to hurt you adds an entire extra layer of context to training via adrenaline, anger, fear and the sheer desire to win.
As we can never know for certain how the techniques that teachers perform so effortlessly in controlled environments will stand up in the streets (and hopefully we won't have to), we must view our learning from a critical perspective while hoping that the automaticity instilled within us through ongoing practice is sufficient.
All martial artists and systems have fundamental weaknesses that an adversary may manipulate. In fact, a skilled one will look to do just that!
For example, weight, height and reach all make tremendous differences in both self-defense and competition. They are the reasons for weight classes in combat sports and even at a professional level, a skilled, smaller martial artist will often find it extremely difficult to fight someone significantly larger.
It is common to hear traditional martial arts teachers claim that their system ‘uses an opponent’s height and weight advantage against them’. This may be true to an extent, giving a fighter with mastery of speed, skill, balance and experience the chance to prosper. For example, the Muay Thai legend Saenchai, has made a regular fixture of taking on opponents with enormous weight and height advantages in his lengthy career (over three-hundred-fifty professional bouts) . However, in most situations the fighter with the size advantage will usually win. Similarly, anyone, regardless of their skill level or size, can always be surprised with a sucker punch in the street or a lucky shot in competition.
Fighting skills are essentially a numbers game. They depend on a combination of technical proficiency, physical advantages, mental advantages, environmental advantages, and, finally, luck. While a skilled traditional martial arts master will certainly often have the statistical advantage, it would be erroneous to assume that anyone would always do so.
While traditional martial arts provide a myriad of benefits, such as physical fitness, awareness, improved reactions and numerous other aspects that may save your life in one way or another, it is an error to believe that any one person or skill set are ever the be-all-and-end-all of fighting. Almost any human in reasonable physical health can kill an enemy with enough wild aggression, or any half-decent fighter can win a competition with a random lucky shot.
Therefore, we must attempt to fill the inherent gaps in our own knowledge and training by finding out what works for us and what doesn’t. We must question our teachers; doing so will often be beneficial for all involved. Finally, we must ensure we do not fall into the trap of considering any martial artist to be the invincible and infallible beings that are often pictured when one utters the word ‘master’.
The above is an original article by Augustus John Roe author of Legendary Masters of the Martial Arts: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, Publication Date October 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399626.