When talking about martial arts, one of the most common questions is, “What’s your style?” It is the closing line in “The Grandmaster,” a recent movie about Ip Man who is considered the modern Grandmaster of Wing Chun.
Style is an interesting issue. We all fixate on it. Some take a traditional look at style, tracing their combative approach back centuries, rife with names, ranks, anecdotes and history. The style itself becomes revered for its capabilities and its lineage of success. Others take a more relaxed view, seeing style as a shorthand for one’s approach.
Every nationality has a martial style, whether they are aware of it or not. Styles vary widely from the fancy hand movements of Wing Chun and Praying Mantis Kung Fu, to the straightforward brawling punches of old Western Bare Knuckle Boxing. Some concentrate on throws such as Judo, or submissions like Jiu Jitsu. Others focus on simple brutality, such as Irish Collar-Elbow and Cornish Wrestling, or on the other side of the world Muay Thai Kick Boxing, Ninjutsu or Karate. Some are full of flourishes and dance like Brazilian Capoeira, while others focus on unusual kicks such as Korean Tak Won Do or French Savate and still others put their faith in weapons like Kali, Escrima, or use of the Katana or the Foil.
The variations are as wide as the world and as deep as time. For some, the style may have been almost lost, while most boast an unbroken line to the current day. Western Boxing and Wrestling trace themselves to the first Olympiads, with Greco-Roman Wrestling still a lively sport. Those styles lumped together as Karate, styles coming from Japan, Okinawa, and Korea, as well as those that associate themselves with Kung Fu, coming out of China, pay great homage to long histories and in-depth lineages. I have left out many cultures, there being far too many to encapsulate. While a few may be relatively new with short histories, most pin themselves to ancient doctrines.
These histories and lineages serve several purposes. They provide some validity to the art or science. Many people are leery of new things, feeling they have not been fully tested. A history provides a base. They point to great names and grand masters in their past who brought some renown to their style. Some point to amazing deeds of daring do, stories of a handful of skilled practitioners that took on hundreds or thousands and won the day. Others tell that their lands were never conquered, even by stronger forces, because of the skills and techniques of their style, or how the smaller subdued the larger. The stories and histories of a style are, in modern terms, the advertising pitch. The testimonial.
In realistic terms, the style histories grow out of a natural, human curiosity. Why are we here? Where did we come from? We extend these questions to almost everything. Where did the car come from? And like many of the answers to these more complex questions, assumptions are made. Small facts mix with extrapolation, conjecture, and raw desire, and a story is woven that soon feels as solid as stone.
Where did the car come from? Most American children would say proudly, Henry Ford. But Ford did not create the car. He did create a wonderful method for building them efficiently. So where did the car come from? Quick research may find that Carl Benz invented the car. His creation began its popularity in 1881. But the first horseless carriage was steam powered, and dates to 1672 in China. The car, like most things, is a device of evolution, little modifications to previous ideas building one upon another. Steam power pushes a piston that turns a wheel. Internal gasoline combustion replaces the steam. It all gets mounted onto a carriage, which is a modification of a wagon, a further modification of a chariot, a viable use of the wheel and axil, which is merely a modification of a rolling log. No thing can come out of nothing.
Modern Quantum Mechanics tells us that something can spontaneously spring into nothing, though this is not the same as saying that something is generated from nothing. Like that miracle within Quantum Mechanics, human endeavors have their little moments of the miraculous. A tinker puzzles on the difficulties of delivering gasoline efficiently inside the piston cylinder. Somewhere in the mind they envision the atomizer of a perfume sprayer, and the carburetor is born. These totally unrelated devices are brought together out of the miracle of human ingenuity. No thing can come out of nothing, but insight comes from nowhere. It magically appears, or so it would seem, and things take a step forward.
Despite this little digression, we must accept these facts. No thing is wholly created. New things, or those things we would call new, are the miraculous combinations of previous forms. We all stand on the shoulders of giants the old cliche’ goes. And as such, nothing is totally new. You cannot think it or make it, without a great deal of it having been thought or made before. In the writing arts, they say there are only seven original character archetypes, the hero, the false hero, the villain, the provider, and so on. Movies grow from plays and plays grow from oral history. There was once something that bordered on original, but everything since is merely a modification. No thing is wholly created, and therefore nothing is new.
The same must be true for the martial arts. Somewhere in the distant past, pre-humans fought. They clawed and scratched, bit and slapped, kicked and punched, threw and broke. Eventually they picked up sticks and rocks. Sticks became clubs and spears. Through the miracle of insight and ingenuity, spears and rocks were placed in slings. Bows and arrows grew out of some other amazing insights, combining spears and the fire bow. We can easily imagine and even trace the evolution of weaponry, but the same must be true for the combative arts. Wild thrashing must have begun to move toward those techniques that seemed to provide the best results. One might even say that there are only seven original techniques; claw/scratch, bite, slap, kick/knee, punch/elbow, throw, and lock/submit/break. Perhaps I have stretched that. Some may separate kick from knee or punch from elbow. Others may combine punch and slap. Still, others might add a head butt. Regardless, due to the structure of the human begin there are only so many ways you can physically attack an opponent with your own body. All martial arts grow from these pre-human primate-fights, with modification and insight.
Another function of style histories is perpetuation. As one individual or group came upon techniques that won the day for them, others would ask to be shown those techniques. Early on it must have been purely an oral tradition, with training sessions around the clan’s campfire. The retention of techniques in this fashion must have been extremely perishable. As a clan died out and its oral histories fell out of favor, many of their approaches would be lost. Undoubtedly a few of the better approaches would survive, absorbed into the new clan and called their own.
Eventually the ability to write down and codify techniques became possible. The perishable quality of techniques lessened, but it did not fade completely. Physical technique is difficult to transcribe into words. The martial arts are a tactile, real-time performance art and science. Written descriptions and isolated, frozen pictures do not transmit the force and direction, the movement from step one to step two. Nonetheless, the ability to codify techniques assisted with their longevity.
Another function of style histories is that they reward the style holders. Access to the code often required some form of initiation, anything from being a friend of a friend, to paying a small homage of food or coin. To increase the validity of the techniques, the code often became surrounded in mystery. Merely the act of saying that you could not see the code unless you paid the homage created the feeling of the majestic. It suddenly became sacred. Without the code, you could not win the day. With it, your survival was much more certain. As the style gained more successes, the greater its value became and the required homage grew, the code’s worth becoming even more revered.
Additionally, and of important note, as the style and its techniques became more revered, those who are perceived as having created the style and those close to the perceived creator and code also become revered. Over time they cease to be normal human beings who put their pants on one leg at a time. They begin to be infallible, possessing not only great physical skills, but take on the air of prophets, their every move and thought appear flawless and forward thinking.
One of the keys in writing a book or making a movie is editing, what you leave out is every bit as important as what you put in. This is also true for style standardization and codifying. There isn’t the time to write down every possibility or examine every option. Many options appear to automatically disqualify themselves, as they do not lead to the techniques that work. This does not mean that they may not be useful, except they distract from the code. The code, the style description and thus its history, is a carefully edited collection of techniques that work for the group that compiles the code.
Let me recap here for a bit. Nothing is wholly created, and nothing is new. A style is a collection of techniques that work for a specific group. The style is a means of perpetuating the approaches used and codifying them so they can be passed on. Histories are a validation of that code, the sales pitch that extols the qualities of the style and code. The greater the history, the greater the homage to that style and therefore the greater the rewards for the holders of the code.
Let’s take a look at a history or two. For examples’ sake, lets look at Wing Chun first, as that is a style I have some experience with. The story is that a Shaolin nun, Ng Mui, was one of the five Southern Temple priests that escaped the burning of the temple by the Qing dynastic government. She had developed her style after watching a stork and a snake fight. She taught her style to Yim Wing Chun, from which the style got its name. Yim Wing Chun taught the style to her husband, who taught it to others, and so the lineage can be traced, person to person, from the style’s creation down to Ip Man and modern times.
We must recognize that Ng Mui did not simply watch a stork and snake fight and from that develop the entire Wing Chun system. She had to be practiced in some other martial arts. Her observation must have given her some insight into a move or two that connected with things she already knew. She had the engine, she saw the perfume sprayer, and envisioned a way to make the engine better. She did not create the engine, nor the perfume sprayer. She did see a way to combine them. She saw a block that she already had, and a punch she already had, and envisioned a way to put them together. She did not create anything new. She found a unique combination, a modification. I am not denigrating that insight. Small changes can have profound effects.
Here is a hitch. Who Ng Mui was has been an on going question for more than two hundred years. On examination we find that Ng Mui is probably a fictional character. She may have been Ng Mui Si Tai, or Wumei Shitai, or the Five Plums Nun, a Buddhist nun and supporter of the Ming Royal family. Or she may be one of the legendary Shaolin Temple’s Five Ancestors who escaped the destruction and burning of the temple by the Qing government. Some say she was a master of Weng Chun Kuen, which might translate as a Weng Chun Punch. Some say she is Lui Sei-Leung, the forth daughter of the Ming General Lui, who supposedly attempted the assassination of the Qing Emperor. Some suggest that Ng Mui was a fictional cover for Chan Wing-Wah, who was also nicknamed The White Crane Taoist, a 1670’s revolutionary. Others suggest that the traditional Wing Chun history is based on the Weng Chun County White Crane oral tradition of Fang Qi Niang, who was the female founder of the White Crane boxing system. The Fang oral tradition may have been embedded in the Wing Chun history as a clue to the parent system, or maybe that is what the White Crane system wants the Wing Chun Clan to believe.
Moreover, historians tell us that the Southern Temple was never burned. It did fall into disarray, and was aided by the Qing government in order to preserve its history as a national asset. But many martial arts histories grow out of that temple burning or takeover that never happened.
Hung Ga was supposedly created by Wong Fei Hung. According to legend, Hung Ga was named after Hung Hei-Gun, who learned the martial art from Jee Sin, a Chan master at the Southern Shaolin Temple. Jee Sin, also known as Gee Sum Sim See, had five students: Hung Hei-Gun, Choy Gau Lee, Mok Da Si, Lau Sam-Ngan and Li Yao San. Supposedly Hung Hei-Gun and his four brother students later became the famous founders of the five Southern Shaolin styles, Hung Ga, Choy Gar, Mok Gar, Li Gar and Lau Gar. In short, these Five are basically the same Five Ancestors in some of the Wing Chun histories. But where is Ng Mui, and where did Wong Fei Hung fall into all of this? Names seem to come and go so easily.
In the Hung Ga tradition, the Qing dynasty used the Southern Temple for refugees, eventually taking over the temple. Disliking the government, as all the ancient sources of martial arts seem to do, Hung left his home in Fujian for Guangdong, bringing the art with him. It is interesting to note that Ip Man was born in Foshan (Fujian) and grew up in Guangdong. These stories seem to revolve in a common sphere, but that makes sense. They are all based on the Southern Temple, a temple from which Five, in some stories Ten, priests fled the oppression of a government.
The point is that with close examination many of these histories begin to fall apart. They tend to be full of tales that suit the purpose of supporting their art and science, and empty of truly traceable names and facts. They are full of individuals with individualistic ideals, rebels and revolutionaries, small bands against great armies. The stuff that myths are made of, and mythical actions make great selling points.
There are styles that have been created within modern times whose histories must be more traceable. Jeet Kune Do and Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu are good examples. Both of these are the creation of Bruce Lee. Jeet Kune Do is a concept rather than a style, though it has some stylistic considerations. Those considerations grow out of Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu, his first, coded style approach. It does have an accepted history. It is the history of Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was an awarded Charleston dancer. He was the brother of an award winning Fencer, and he studied Wing Chun under Ip Man. His claims to fame were his lightening fast movements, his on camera charisma, his flare for behind the camera film making, along with an exceptional ability to express his ideas both verbally and physically.
As such, the history of Jeet Kune Do is that of an exceptional martial artist who pulled together some techniques from various martial arts, the majority of which come from Wing Chun. Therefore, it inherits the history of Wing Chun and adds to it the shining light that is Bruce Lee himself. He becomes the testimonial for the art. Some may point to various insights that Si-Jo Lee attached to his science, such as, “The art of fighting without fighting.” In so doing they allude to his amazing powers of insight and suggest that his art becomes a creation wholly attributable to him. But that idea was put forward by Sun Tzu, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” who died in 496 BC. Nothing is wholly created, and nothing is totally new. Everything is a modification or combination of previous forms.
So Jeet Kune Do builds on the previous history of Wing Chun and adds to it the testimonial of Bruce Lee himself. Unfortunately, his physical characteristics cannot be codified, taught or transferred. The association of him to his art does not mean that anyone else will get the same results, but it is he that is the primary selling point. Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu means Bruce Lee’s Mastery, Bruce Lee’s Way. But your way will not be, and cannot be his way.
If you wanted to enter the UFC, you might seek out Chuck Lidel’s or Randy Couture’s school. You may want to learn Lidel’s or Couture’s way. They can certainly show you the techniques they used, as well as techniques they have seen work. But they cannot make you or anyone use their techniques the way they use them, no more than anyone can become Bruce Lee by studying Bruce Lee’s way.
But it goes even deeper. Every teacher unintentionally leaves something out, and every teacher unintentionally puts something in. Take the long history of Jeet Kune Do that traces itself back through an untraceable Wing Chun. We cannot know who was first. Whomever they were, they were the Bruce Lee of their time and place, known in the local area. They said, “This is my way. Learn it and you will win.” Try as they might, that person could not have taught everything that they did. Certainly they enhanced some things they did or felt they should have done, and certainly they left some things out, accidentally. Because they are human, they could not have embedded their students with their essence. They may have gotten close, but it could not have been perfection.
From whatever science Wing Chun splintered out of, it was passed person by person down to Ip Man and then Bruce Lee, losing a little and gaining a little all along the way. Ip Man is attributed with incorporating the high kick in Wing Chun. We cannot know if this is true or not. Did he put something in that never existed, or did he put back something that got left out somewhere along the line? He justified its use by attaching it to one of Wing Chun’s core principles; strike where there is a void. For something to be missing that is so easily associated with the root concept would seem to be a major oversight. Or was it that some old teacher found high kicks difficult with old hips, so he or she did not work them as much, and the next generation suffered the loss?
Some say that Wing Chun does not have a ground game. Si-Fu Francis Fong regularly incorporates ground work into Wing Chun, and Wing Chun in ground work. Wing Chun is considered a close-quarters, inside style. You cannot get much closer and inside that grappling, so wouldn’t Wing Chun seem to lend itself to that cause? Has Si-Fu Fong created a personal modification that he can readily attach to the Wing Chun code, or has he replaced something that was originally in the code but fell by the wayside? No one can say. Codes, especially old codes, are sketchy at best. Their histories and their perpetuation are faulty and flawed.
One thing is certain, Si-Fu Fong puts himself into his Wing Chun. Every teacher does. Bruce Lee put himself into his Wing Chun. He did so to the extent of specifying that it was his Wing Chun, his way, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu. This is true of every instructor and every student. What I practice and teach is a mixture of my experiences. It is an amalgam of Okinawan Kempo, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu, Wing Chun, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Kali, contorted by my small, old body and creaky, broken joints. My Wing Chun probably has only small resemblance to Weng Chun Kuen or White Crane Boxing, from which it may have flowed.
One of the major selling points of a style is its history. The history shines light on the great names or great deeds that utilized the style. There is a Chinese parable; “When you drink the water, you should remember the place from where it flows.” Seeking the source is a strong human drive. The closer you get to the original, the more true and pure must be the information you receive. At least, that is the way we think. That is why you might seek out Chuck Lidel or Randy Couture. If you want to learn Bruce Lee’s way, you seek out Guro Dan Inosanto, one of his first and more renown students. You try to get as close to the source as possible. But if we took this idea to its extremes, wouldn’t the original be something more like watching chimpanzees fight?
One of the functions of a style is to build a collection of what has worked, to do the diligent editing and leave some things out. The goal is to perfect, to push the style forward. If we truly believe that getting closer to the source is always the best, then we would all be driving Model A Fords, or even steam powered carriages. No, the truth is things improve with time. They may be further from the source, but more diligent editing has taken place. The system becomes refined. It modifies itself as other systems modify and learn to strike in the voids that your system has.
As great as Ng Mui or Wumei Shitai or whomever she was might have been, Bruce Lee was probably more refined. I would argue that, due to Si-Jo Lee’s untimely death, Guro Inosanto is even more refined that Bruce Lee, having had the benefit of an additional forty years to work his craft. Guro may not be as fast. He may not have the acuity of Si-Jo Lee, but he has the benefit of greater time on task, and the added benefit of being in the here and now. He is capable of observing current changes and adapting to them.
Unfortunately we struggle with conflicting duality. We recognize that things improve with time, but we believe that the source is somehow superior. Bruce Lee or Ip Man are the shining lights that make their arts great, and somehow the arts have diminished since them. They take on the air of infallibility and perfection, when we know that things must have changed and that things are probably improving. Still we find ourselves asking, if Bruce Lee didn’t do this or that, should we? Does that really matter? No one can do what Bruce Lee did, not exactly, not everything, in every way. Some may be better than he in some ways, faster, quicker, or more clever.
Krav Maga has techniques specifically for dealing with a handgun at close range. Any style rooting itself prior to the 1700’s cannot have such a consideration. Piece by piece, person by person, borrowing this and leaving out that, styles have strayed from their histories in order to become better than they were, and to keep up with the times. No style is pure, and if it should be, it remains purely as an art and has lost some of its functionality.
What is my style? My style is me. Try as I might, I cannot teach you Jeet Kune Do or Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu. I can incorporate pieces, and as I do invariably I modify them in some way. I personalize them by choice or by the constraints of my body and my genetics. Try as I might, whatever I pass on to you is not Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu or Wing Chun. It is only pieces of these styles, mixed with pieces of others, both corrupted and refined. What you learn is your style. It is your best attempt to mimic my best attempt at mimicking someone else’s best attempts. On the surface this may seem to be a loss. Best attempts are not perfect copies. However, my best attempt is after careful consideration and an effort to make the technique work for me. I’ve refined it in some way. You will refine it further.
Do not misunderstand me. I accept that I may execute some techniques very poorly. I have not yet figured them out. Little points that could have or should have flowed down from the source may not have reached me as yet. I may do it wrong. I am only human, just as the source was only human, and they undoubtedly did some things wrong too. They were not gods. But some things I have, and I have them well. They can always be refined, but that is true for everything and everyone, from me all the way back to Sun Tzu and beyond.
The source is itself alone, and nothing can be it. Simply be yourself. Take the tools that work for you, and pass them on as best you can. Do not make pretense to this being some pure form from some distant past, or even from a renown individual. What I practice, what I teach is the culmination of all things I have experienced. As a teacher, I am merely an editor, leaving out things that I believe to be useless and sticking pieces together to define the force and direction in the movement from step one to step two. I can show you what I do. I can point to the mighty history from which it my techniques flow. But I will make no claims of purity or profoundness. I will tell you up front. It is modified, corrupted. I will tell you what works for me and what does not. I cannot know what works for you. I may say that this or that technique is in this vein, but it is not the root, or the trunk, or a branch or twig. It is but a leaf, unique and all its own.
It may seem smug to you if I disregard a technique that the mighty used. I am not placing myself above them, nor pushing them down. I am placing myself beside them, in the same place we all belong. Mere humans building on what came before, refining and discarding, combining and modifying, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. That is what humans do. That is what I am. My style is me. What’s your style?