Some Thoughts On Gokenki and the Transmission of His Crane on Okinawa

I will assume most of the folks reading this are familiar with Go Kenki (Wu Xianghui/呉貴賢). I have been thinking about him, his impact on today’s karate, and his possible training background lately.

Wu’s history is somewhat unclear, though his impact on the early 20th century karate world seems to have been quite extensive. Through personal relationships and especially through the Tode Kenkyukai he trained with just about all the most well known karate men of his day- Miyagi, Kyoda, Hanashiro, Yabu, Motobu, and Mabuni among others. He supposedly knew Uechi Kanbun from his time in Fuchow and it is said Uechi sent students to him in Okinawa. He knew two generations of the Matayoshi family, and Matayoshi Shinko also knew Wu’s father in Fuchow. Kata of his, or influenced by him, are officially part of To’on Ryu (Nepai), Shito Ryu (Nipaipo), Ryuei Ryu (Paiho), and less officially are a part of a variety of other systems in Okinawa. The Matayoshi family passed down an at least partial system of his, including at least 6 extant forms and 2 others that may or may not still be known. Itoman Shojo, one of Wu’s students, said he also taught a form not on the Matayoshi list, Zhongkuang, or Chukon in Japanese. Miyagi and he traveled to China together and supposedly he influenced Goju Ryu a great deal even though none of his forms were included in it. So all told a lot of contact and influence on the karate of his day.

But what did he bring to the table, as it were? It is impossible to know for sure, as no one has any clear documentation on his teachers or his system. Everyone agrees it is “White Crane”, but what white crane? It is a very good bet that he taught Ming He, 鳴鶴拳, Singing or Crying Crane, at least based on the forms he taught. Baibulien/八歩連 (Happoren), Ershiba/二十八(Nepai), and Zhongkuang/中框(Chukon) are all Ming He forms, and not to my knowledge taught together in any other system. The patterns of his Ershiba and Baibulien bear a great deal of resemblance to the extant Ming He versions, which is additional back-up for this idea. But other than that? There is very little information available, so it is hard to know.

I can’t help but wonder why? Lineages are important on Okinawa. He lived at a time when people were documenting their arts and formalizing and writing down all sorts of things. Yet we have next to nothing on Wu even though he was considered to be such an important influence on so many. I know I talk about my teachers around the dojo, on both personal and training levels. I take some pride in my lineage and have strong attachments to my teachers. So does every other martial artist I know. But there is no record from anyone he trained with of exactly who Wu’s teachers were, or even what the name of his art was. He had a few direct students, people like Anya Seisho and Itoman Shojo, but it is surprising that they never learned (or passed on) any background of the system they were practicing- what it was or who it came from. Not even the Matayoshi family, who may have learnt and kept more of his system than anyone, seem to have any idea who Wu’s teachers were besides his father, or if his art is called anything other than “Shaolin Crane Fist”.

His actual training and teaching show a similar pattern. Wu knew all the important karate people of his day. He is given credit for influencing many of them, in particular Miyagi, Kyoda, and Mabuni. But even though people talk about him a great deal, outside various versions of a form with the “crane wings” posture, a posture not really even that emblematic of Singing Crane, his actual concrete impact seems pretty limited. He had no students that continued to teach and train, with the exception of Matayoshi Shinpo who certainly didn’t work to develop Wu’s art on Okinawa. A few other people kept a form or two of his, like To’on Ryu’s Nepai (often quite modified like Shito Ryu’s Nipaipo) but they are not core parts of any extant art. There just isn’t much of his actual legacy around.

Looking at what he taught, Wu also seems to have focused on the lowest level Ming He forms. Happoren/Baibulien is the first form, their sanchin, as it were. Nepai is also a junior form. While Zhongkuang, an intermediate form, is mentioned it seems no one really learned it (at least no one who passed it down), though looking at the Ming He version some of its techniques seem possibly visible in the various Hakakku/Kakuho/ Paiho/etc, forms around the island that stem from Wu. But that is it. So if he knew higher level material he either didn’t teach it or didn’t succeed in passing it on.

But most importantly he appears to have failed to pass down the core movement principles of Ming He. None of the kata he did pass down show any sign of whipping/shaking, the base energy of Ming He. (With the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, something for a different post.) Instead, they pretty much all are done with the power generation of whichever Okinawan karate they are a part of. This doesn’t mean that Wu didn’t use this method, but it seems that no one learned it from him, they instead took what they took from Wu and applied their karate methodology to it.

Looking at this together I am led to three possible conclusions:

One, that regardless of his skill he was simply not that great a teacher and was unable to pass on much of his system, inspire anyone to become his actual student, or pass on the core mechanics of his practice.

Two, that he wasn’t that great a martial artist so that while people liked him and his ideas he didn’t have much of meat to pass on or inspire, just some ideas and information that were interesting to the community.

Or Three, that the Okinawans looked at what he had to offer and said something along the lines of “pretty cool. I like bits of that. But otherwise, meh. I’ll stick with karate thank you very much.”

These are not mutually exclusive, and of course there is no way to really know, but they all speak to me of a different relationship than we usually hear about. Instead of a “Chinese Master bringing secret crane technique to Okinawa” we have a friend. A kindred spirit perhaps. A fellow student to share with. For a couple, Uechi and Matayoshi Shinko, a training partner or associate from Fuchow. For the rest, someone with experience they did not have, and insights into “Chinese” knowledge, with all that carries in the way of cultural baggage in Okinawa. But not a teacher, a master, or a bastion of White Crane the Okinawans would value enough to adopt over what they already knew. In short, his white crane was not good enough to inspire the Okinawans to do it instead of their karate. Whether that was due to the art, his ability, or some other reason is immaterial. Simply put, regardless of how important the “White Crane” looms in Okinawan karate legend, when faced with an opportunity to simply learn and practice White Crane, the Okinawans instead stuck with their karate.

Who knows, right? Wu didn’t come to Okinawa to teach martial arts, or even as a martial artist. He came looking to work as a merchant, at around 25 years old. Maybe he wasn’t a master, or a master teacher, just a young merchant interested in the fighting arts. He had some training, and was happy to share it with an active and changing martial arts community in Okinawa, a community of highly trained people who found his ideas and experience interesting but didn’t see enough there to leave their practice to take up his. Influence, interest, exchange. Friends sharing their art, masters or not. Real people interacting and learning. Not what the story is, but seems to be backed up by what actually happened.

Sharing Our Kobudo

I had the pleasure this last weekend of doing an informal training weekend with Paul and Barbara Gehring sensei(s), of the Iwa dojo in Denver Colorado and some of their students, Garrett from the Iwa dojo and Richard Bennett sensei of Bennett’s Karate. Paul is a senior member of Itokazu Seisho sensei’s Matayoshi Kobudo Shinbukai and they are all experienced kobudo ka. We spent most of our time working with the kama and sansetsukon, and had a fantastic time. I love sharing our kobudo with other serious and experienced practitioners, and wish I could do so more often! The level was, not surprisingly, high, and it was just a plain old good time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and Barbara are also old friends. Paul and I trained together at UMass, and we were in Japan at the same time in the early 90s, though at opposite ends of the country. It had been a while since we had practiced together, but the spirit of training felt immediately familiar, tempered by a lot of training and experience since the last time yes but that just added benefit instead of creating any distance.

I have been thinking about the weekend, the laughs of course but also the training, a lot on the way home and since and that last thing, the lack of distance, is perhaps what that stood out the most to me in training together. Being able to work together seems like it would be easy, since we started under the same teacher around the same time. But since then we have taken different, if similar, paths. Honestly, if we were in Okinawa it might have been a little difficult for members of the Matayoshi Kobudo Shinbukai and Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Renseikai to train together, for a host of minor but socially pertinent reasons.

To me, that is a real shame. Moving around karate and kobudo circles I have often noted what I think is a peculiar approach to variation in practice. Even more than between systems, when people share a system and differences, sometimes very small, appear in technique suddenly that becomes an opportunity, almost an imperative, to judge. Which one is “better”, or “the right way” must be established! Even when the variations come from really well trained and experienced people. Richard shared a great story about 3 very senior Uechi teachers with small variations in one technique, each one certain theirs was the best way. I have seen very similar things in other dojo on Okinawa, sometimes hours long conversations about tiny details that sometimes can be important, but at other times are obviously more flavor or preference. And yet the discussions can be interminable.

On one level that is understandable. When you spend your time perfecting a certain approach it can be threatening to see another approach to the same thing. And of course sometimes you see things that are, for technical reasons, just not that good. But before lumping any variation into that category it is really better to spend a little time understanding why that variation exists, and what its purpose is. And asking if it matters! In the Matayoshi world this seems particularly pertinent at this time. Matayoshi Shinpo has been gone for over 20 years, but he left behind a number of senior students. Many of them are fantastic kobudo practitioners and instructors. They each do tend to hold slightly different portions of the body of the system, particularly at the higher levels, and more importantly slightly different takes on how the art is practiced. Sharing this stuff would be good for everyone, I think. Especially because when examined closely these differences are often just expressions of the same thing. But for a variety of reasons- personal, social, practical (distance), and of course inertia, it is unfortunately somewhat unusual for the various groups to train together.

Of course this too is understandable. One question that starts any attempt to mix groups is “ok, who teaches the first session?”. Which teachers are willing to have their students learn from someone else? Are the teachers going to let other folks, people they may have known for decades but who may have a different expression of what their teacher taught, run a session they are in? Will they participate? How will students respond to having what their teacher has taught them questioned, even in a polite and possibly minor way? I don’t want to make light of these questions. They are real, and often about much more than personal issues or ego. Is it helpful to your students to have their technique confused a little by minor variation? What if you think this other senior practitioner actually is doing something incorrectly, not just a little differently, but you don’t want to get in a “discussion” about it, it doesn’t seem polite? How do you avoid the constant need for everyone to judge and try to figure out who is “the best”? What to do about the various branch-specific kata and drills that have been added it the last 20 years? And that doesn’t even start to address questions that can arise in personal relationships that are decades old!

I don’t really have an answer I am afraid. But I saw one approach that works this weekend. Start with treating each other with respect, and have a sense of humor. It has been a long time, over a decade, since Paul and I trained kobudo together. In that time we have been training under different teachers and running our own dojo. Plenty of time to cement technique and the reasons for it, plenty of time to get really attached to “how we do it”. But by approaching training with sharing, and a few laughs about how we got where we are, it seemed pretty easy to train together. Clarity also helped- when we were doing whatever we did we started by talking about what we were sharing and why.

I feel like I learned a lot this weekend. It was really fun, and I felt honored, to share some of my practice of the kama and sansetsukon. It was also really fun to have Paul, Barbara, Richard, and Garrett share some of their technique and theory with me. I learned a lot and not just about our kobudo. Keeping a dojo alive and growing requires a great deal more than good technique. I got to see some of the inner workings of a dojo that is functioning well and learn some of how they approach doing that. You don’t get students who are both skilled and open-minded without doing something right and I appreciate them all sharing their approach with me. Those late night conversations are sometimes where the real learning is…. Again, I don’t have any answers that will fit everyone, but it does seem a big part of that is having an open mind and self confidence as opposed to self importance. In short, Open Mind, Joyful Training. Train. Laugh. Share. What more can you ask for?


Great training! Thank you, Richard, Paul, and Barbara.


Shh, it’s a Secret!

The idea of secrecy is pretty important in some arts, and to some teachers. I have trained in a system where for literally hundreds of years no one who is not a member has even been allowed to watch training without an invitation. Where even some important training methods are not shown to members of the group until they pass a certain threshold. Many of my older teachers hate video and did not want themselves taped. If they allowed it they made people promise not to ever share the footage. I know people who will not allow details of their training to be shared publicly, or who won’t share video or historical information they have, even with a community of students of a mutual teacher who are not part of their group, because it is their secret. So many training methods, forms, theories, drills, applications, videos, etc., are often kept private. Sharing them can ruin relationships, personal and teacher-student. Secrecy can be a serious business.

From one perspective it makes sense. If you are teaching a combat art it is certainly better for you if no one but your training partners, hopefully by extension people you can trust and rely on, knows how you move and how you fight. This is particularly important, I would hazard, where there is a dueling culture, i.e. people get into violent altercations with time to prepare and learn about their opponents, and there is limited mobility, i.e. all the people you might fight live and train relatively close by. But otherwise, is it really helpful?

It does lead to some ridiculous ideas, like that techniques are hidden in kata, the movements changed and disguised so they can’t be stolen by people watching. Really? Kata are only for people actually training the system, right? And they are supposed to be methods for ingraining essential movement into the body, right? It is usually pretty easy to keep strangers away from your training, unless you train in the middle of the town square, isn’t it? So you are going to spend a lot of energy training into your body incorrect movements, ones that are modified enough that they hide the techniques from a potential observer that you can pretty easily avoid? That seems silly to me.  More like an excuse for not understanding the kata than a real attempt at secrecy. But I digress.

I deeply value the knowledge I have been gifted, and understand its worth. I also have a deep respect for my teachers, and have taken their requests to heart. But they are not the only word on how the arts move into the future. To me, most of the secrecy around the arts these days seems as silly as the idea above, an attempt perhaps at a certain mystique, but otherwise useless. Why? Well first off, most of it seems pointless, or even counter productive. Looking again at The Secrets in Kata, little of the meat of a system can be transmitted by video, text, or voice alone. It just isn’t possible. I know I can tell pretty much immediately if someone has learned something from one of the systems I teach from video, and often which video. That is because the mistakes they make are consistent. While one, particularly with some training, can get take in a lot there are certain things you can’t learn from video, or a book. So I don’t really care if there are videos of all our forms and such out there. If someone really wants to learn they need to find a good teacher and if they want to learn from video the limits they have put on their own skills and knowledge don’t really affect me at all. They are only fooling themselves.

But that is, in many ways, besides the point. Because hiding technique aside, I don’t think secrecy is helpful in engendering growth or strength in the arts. Sharing, on the other hand, is. Why? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

First, having the chance to see, even if not fully understand, different training methods and environments can do a number of good things for personal practice. It can give you some ideas for your training. It can show you variants and different understandings that can help break down places you are stuck or where you are lacking. It can inspire, and at the same time give you perspective. A more open view of your practice is almost always helpful. And sharing also means you have to be willing to let it hang out, have confidence in your practice and be ready to take criticism. You have to be willing to say your art is valuable for more than the “secret” piece of information you hold, the bits you don’t want to show anyone. That, for want of a better phrase, you can walk the walk.

Second, it can be helpful for research and preservation. How much information has been lost because someone wanted to keep it secret and then never shared it? How much nonsense in martial arts writing would have been avoided if access to valid information was easy? Sure you can’t share some of the meat unless you are touching hands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share something of value in a variety of ways. Books, video, social media, all can have a place in learning. By making things more open many questions- historical, technical, personal- become easier to answer. A more nuanced and factually accurate perspective can be developed, and new questions can build off good information, not guess work. Of course that is a two edged sword- if your school or lineage has stories or claims that can be disproven by better public access to information that is certainly an incentive to secrecy. A pretty poor one, I think, but an incentive none the less…

Third, it can help the community. Perspective can show people who is full of @#$% , by exposing their nonsense in a more educated environment. It can demonstrate similarities and differences in approach that can be both enlightening and, at times, bubble-bursting. (What is the old line- a secret technique in one art is a basic one in another?) It can bring people together and make the larger environment more knowledgeable, and interesting. It can also expose good, solid training practices to the larger public. These days traditional arts seem to be waning. If nothing else, MMA is the yardstick by which all arts are measured and “in the octagon” many of the public presentations of traditional arts don’t hold up. While I thing that is in many ways a very poor yardstick I also honestly think that is in part because most of the folks who present themselves publicly are either primarily teaching kids or are not really a good representation of what the traditional arts can be. (Yes, that was the polite phrasing.) The groups focused on training seem to hold on to the idea of secrecy, or at least are not outward-looking. Changing that might change the public perspective of these arts.

But while the impetus for secrecy is often explained technically, as hiding one’s fighting skills, I don’t think that is the real reason. Even going back a few generations the majority of people training the Okinawan, Japanese, and Chinese arts didn’t fight very much. Sure some did, but not most. However, there are three other reasons why people might want to keep secrets.

The first is simple- lack of knowledge or skill. If your training is too “secret” to share with the world you don’t have to worry about how you compare to anyone else. Your students are not allowed to show anyone else what you do. They probably are not allowed to train anywhere else either. With no yardstick, there is no way to measure what you are doing. So while it may make you feel cool, full of secret knowledge, that falls apart pretty quick if you touch hands with someone else and get a clear demonstration of how little those secrets actually mean. To be honest, the dojo and teachers I have seen that were the most concerned with secrecy have usually been the weakest as well. The plural of anecdote is not data, but that is what my personal experience tells me. But that is just one reason, and I don’t think the most common. Thankfully.

The second is marketing, or its compatriot protectionism. I have friends who have worried that if otherwise rare practices were made public then you would quickly have people “teaching” them. That these valuable practices would be spread about and debased by improper treatment. Honestly, I think they are right, there will certainly be people teaching from video or whatever if more is made public. Shame on them. But so what? If more is made public you should also be able, pretty easily, to do a little research and know who is not being truthful about their material. Experienced people can probably just tell by looking, or touching hands. So sure, keeping things secret can protect them from people of poor character. It can protect them right out of existence as well. And this same method works equally well for training methods that are, for want of a better term, not so special. While keeping stuff in-group then is a form of protection, it is at the same time marketing. In short, it says: only we have x, you can’t get it anywhere else so if you want x come to us, because it is awesome. But we won’t let you know much about it until you join up… Indeed, at times the things being protected are tiny. Tidbits of technique, or history, or documentation, or theory. And honestly, if that is all you have you don’t really have much to offer do you? Real arts are more holistic than that. So protection and marketing are two sides of the same coin, albeit with very different goals. But either one can work two ways, preserving and destroying, hiding real or not so real secrets, all depending on who is doing the hiding, what they are hiding, and of course why. And in the end, does it help anyone grow? It can keep bad stuff from being measured, like in the first reason above. It can keep good stuff from being shared and preserved. It might keep good stuff from being devalued, maybe, but is that really enough of a reason? I don’t think it really works out, on balance anyway.

But in my opinon it is the third reason that is the most important, particularly in a world where most martial arts training is done by people who don’t live violent lives. To it, it doesn’t matter how valuable or useful the secrets are. Their technical nature is secondary to their social use. There is a huge amount of social capital that can be invoked by belonging to a group that has “secrets”. You become an initiate, a member of a special circle of people, an insider. And for the seniors and particularly the teacher you get to be the locus of this secret knowledge, gatekeepers and status holders. That is strong motivation to keep material in-group. People have a fundamental need to belong, be part of a group, and to measure status within that group. Clearly defining that group, who is in and who is out, who controls knowledge in it, makes that belonging process easier. Secrecy does that, and it also makes for easy status markers: who knows x? Race, gender, political affiliation, school, work, and a myriad of other traits or choices can create categories of belonging, ways to define a group. In the case of the martial arts, this idea of secrecy is a very powerful one. We have x, “they” don’t. We are special. But while this may work very well in some specific ways, I really don’t believe this kind of thinking, this way of developing group cohesion or identity, is very healthy.

Sure belonging is essential, but othering is kind of dangerous, and that is at the core of secrecy. However, it seems pretty easy to have one without the other. Sharing information might be one way to foster that. Make your training, your group, special by welcoming and supporting each other. By being a locus of knowledge and sharing within the group as well as a group not afraid to let go and help others grow. Most importantly by having something valid and valuable to share. Knowledge and skill are not the same as secrets. They are real; you can’t fake either. They take a lot of work to develop and I certainly think you should hunt down real knowledge and develop your skills. If you do, then you don’t need secrets. Or at least the kind of secrets you can hide easily. You can tell people about your “secrets”, even show them, but if they don’t do the work they simply can’t access them. So shed the little “secrets”, and the illusion of “specialness” they give and instead learn, grow, and train hard. Make sure you actually have something special in your training and have put in the effort to develop it. Let other people see it and welcome them to partake. That is the real secret, and should most definitely be shared.

I Was Never Told That

One myth of classical training is that it is silent. The teacher gives an occasional command and the students just work. This is usually seen as positive, time is spent “training not talking”. People say that is the “old way” when no one questioned the teacher and people didn’t want to gab instead of work out. Sounds reasonable, I guess. Certainly the other approach- lots of talking- is not a very good way to train. I have visited dojo where people spent far more time discussing the details of a technique (and often how “devastating” it was) than sweating. The term “kuchi bushi” (口武士) roughly translates as “mouth warrior”, and means someone who talks about training instead of actually training. The fact there is a common term for it means that it is something of a problem, in Japan as well as here.  But the other extreme is equally bad.

A while back I wrote a little about communicating in the dojo. If you are just working out- doing physical exercise like pushups, hitting a bag, working with the chishi, doing reps of technique or kata- not a lot of conversation is needed. Once you have the basic instruction just do it. Don’t gab. But for much of our martial arts training you need to be actively engaged with your partners. One way to do that is to use your words. They come in handy. For example doing body conditioning it is important to be working at your edge. Your partner is unlikely to know exactly where that is, so giving each other feedback- hit a little harder, a little softer, etc.- is the most efficient way to train. Instead of getting injured or not getting any benefit, just communicate.

On top of that, if you are taking charge of your own training you need feedback and information. Your teacher, and training partners, are the only place you can get that. If you don’t  communicate, ask questions, listen to answers, have your current knowledge and assumptions challenged mentally as well as physically, you can’t grow. So you need instruction. And you need to ask questions and receive answers. But how much of this is a good thing, and how much is just blather?

I have never been in a good dojo that was silent. Nor in one that was a gab-fest. Instead periodic topical conversation was the norm. Partners giving each other feedback, some instruction from the teacher or seniors, and a question every now and then. Occasionally some laughter, because funny things can happen when you are pushing yourselves. It is not a church, it is a dojo, and since we are studying what can be considered a form of communication, it is essential we do just that.

I can’t help but wonder where the myth of the silent dojo got started, especially since I have not seen them in Okinawa or Japan. It is not even a tradition. If you pay attention to the stories of Miyagi, his classes were really physically demanding, but there are also these epic lecture and Q&A sessions after training or at other times. He talked a lot! Sure there are plenty of stories of the “old days” and plenty of teachers who discouraged questions, but somehow the information got passed down… So where did the idea of a silent dojo come from?

I do have a theory. Most of the first generation that brought the arts back to the US were servicemen. They came from a “don’t speak unless you are spoken to” environment. They did not have much if any language training, and they were not in Asia for that long. Early in one’s training questions and conversation are less useful as one is working on basic movements and doing a lot of repetition. Talk isn’t needed much. And without a common language it is pretty time-consuming, and often not very rewarding, to try to talk. That seems like a double whammy to me, one that keeps conversation to a minimum. When I was living and training in Japan I noticed that as my language skills improved my teachers talked more. They were willing to explain concepts like ma’ai, kuzushi, chinkuchi and kyusho as they were relevant to what we were doing, explanations that would have been impossible earlier. That was probably also fostered by improved understanding of what we were doing- I was reaching points where the explanation was actually relevant.

At the same time I also learned how to phrase questions, and when to keep quiet. The phrasing is actually rather important. It may be a personal thing or it may be a cultural thing but I realized that there was quite a difference between “sensei, what does this mean” or “how do you do x”, and “sensei, does this mean this…” or “is this the right way to”. The first were usually met with a fairly dismissive answer, anything from “keep training, you will learn eventually” to the patently untrue but clear conversation ender “I don’t know”. The second was met with anything from “no, keep training” (especially if what I presented was particularly poor) to a long delve into the movement or idea and its accompanying practices and applications, where I was on the right track and where, and why, I was not.

That was coupled with timing. When to ask questions is important. Of course if sensei says “do you have any questions” it is the perfect time. Otherwise? It is kind of rude to interrupt when your teacher is actually teaching. If the group is doing something it is not be a good time. When you are expected to be doing something else is also not particularly timely. When then? Well, when were Miyagi sensei’s talk-sessions? After training. You can also try before training. Out having drinks or dinner. Other times might include out with a dojo group at a festival. When stopping by the dojo on a non-training night. At a fellow student’s sayonara party. If you only come to the dojo, and only see your teacher, for scheduled training times then you might not actually get any chance to ask questions. So not only do you need to train, but you need to be part of the group, and spend time with your teacher(s).

So timing, phrasing, language skills, etiquette, understanding of the system, all may be reasons why students are asked to keep quiet. But there is one more. As you get to know someone better there is more to talk about. You get more comfortable communicating. How much time do you spend talking to people you hardly know? Simple greetings, polite small talk, but not much of substance I would bet. Isn’t it the same for new students? So again, relationships are important. They can have a pretty strong impact on just what is communicated in the dojo. And what is not.

Tradition and Entropy

After some of the feedback on my post The Good Old Days, I have been thinking even more about the power of tradition. The martial arts are obsessed with passing on the tradition.  In a way no other art- dance, music, painting- seems to be we are much more concerned with conserving the past than with creativity or development. It constant- passing down the knowledge, maintaining the flame, keeping the art alive- they are catchphrases in the martial arts, on websites, dojo walls, tshirts and patches. If you think about it, it is astounding. Imagine a musician deciding that his or her main goal was to be identical to Huddie Ledbetter, or Thelonious Monk? Imagine a painter saying the epitome of his art was painting exactly like Raphael, or Picasso? That diverging from these masters was the worst blasphemy. But in the martial arts the vision is constantly backwards, to the masters of the past. They are venerated. We are told we cannot equal them. Their skill, their approach, is as good as it gets: no one now is their better and straying from their path is just ego. If you know me you know how much stock I place in what has been passed down to me. I value it deeply, and believe it is worth preserving. I am not what you would call a radical innovator. But there has to be more!

It some ways of course it is understandable. Those arts that have something really concrete to pass on can hold an incredible body of knowledge, hard won and carefully nurtured. It is knowledge that cannot be imitated by athleticism or created out of whole cloth. And while we tend to credit the founders alone for this knowledge it is really the accretion of information and skill through multiple generations that gives us what we have today. Each generation has left its mark and in deep arts the accumulation of information, the honing and improvement of the technique and teaching methods, has resulted in something greater than the original. But that is because in each generation, once the system as it is has been internalized, those that wound up passing it on added their mark to it, heralded or not.

The process of passing a folk art down through generations can be very complex. In our desire to hold the earlier generations up as examples and maintain the traditions we value I think we often refuse to recognize how much change is inherent in the transmission. Things cannot stay the same. They either change or decay. One of my teachers, Liu Chang’I has an excellent description of this process:

The best student, the one who is the most dedicated, attentive, and talented, will learn at most 90% of what his teacher has. (And let’s be clear. By this I don’t mean sequences of kata and other subjects. These can all be passed down easily. I mean the meat, what makes these things work!) This is not because the teacher is better, or the student misses something, or even because the teacher doesn’t teach something. It is because no one is perfect, and no one can, or should want to, copy another person exactly. So what about that missing 10%? It is up to each student to fill it in him or her self. That is the process of making the art your own. The bones of the art- the mechanics, theory, fundamental movements- they are what you make your contribution with, what you use to grow the art for yourself. They are what keeps the art coherent across generations and they must be mastered before you can contribute something. But, and this is important, if each generation does not add their 10% back in the art will die. At a 90% retention rate In 3 generations it will be 73% of what it was. Just 3 generations! So the art cannot, must not, remain exactly the same. You cannot just practice what your teacher shows you! Once you have the bones you must think for yourself! You must learn as much as you can and then try to move your art and practice forward. That keeps it alive, so another generation can enjoy it.

I think this is a powerful idea. It assumes careful attention to your teacher, learnt depth of knowledge and good instruction. It acknowledges the complexity and imperfection of human interaction. And it takes out the hero worship and replaces it with hard work. It is also not really a new idea. There are a number of proved, working models of knowledge transmission that essentially describe this exact idea. Apprenticeship practically and Shu-Ha-Ri conceptually are two examples. Regardless of the exact model however, the concept says three things to me:

  • You need to learn the bones of your system as deeply as you can. Without these you are no longer doing your system you are making something up.
  • When you are ready (and your teachers should help you understand when this is) you need to take these bones and work with them to grow yourself and your art.
  • No art is the same as it was even 100 years ago. It cannot be and we should not want it to be. Anyone who tells you different is lying, either to themselves or to you.

So, basically, transmission is an attempt to forestall entropy. But entropy is a given so energy must be added in to the transmission or, by the simple nature of things, it will decay. I have seen that happen to what must have been valuable arts once. Now they are shadows of themselves, forms and methods that lack life and are practiced by people who don’t even recognize it because they are obsessed with being just like the last generation, with making sure they don’t alter any part of the treasure they have been handed. And in the process they have altered it beyond recognition.


“To have been always what I am – and so changed from what I was.”         Samuel Beckett


The Secrets in Kata

So, kata has “secrets”. Yup. I guess. They certainly carry information. But I don’t want to get into what techniques are hidden in our kata (sorry if that was what you were looking for). I am more interested in how that information is held, and how it is transmitted. How to access it.

Kata are pretty easy to teach. They are essentially short combinations of movements, in the Okinawan arts usually taking a minute or so to perform. A professional dancer would probably be able to learn and repeat a sequence of similar or greater length and complexity to the most difficult karate kata in a single training session, and would learn dozens a year taking class. If you know how to move and how to learn, they really are not that hard to take in.

But we spend years working on the same forms. Why? Here is the secret. It is not in the sequence of the forms, as important as they are, but in how they are performed. This is why a dancer could probably learn any of our forms in an hour or two but not be able to do them quite properly. They wouldn’t know HOW to do the forms. Internal muscle work. Posture and structure in our art as opposed to theirs. Breathing. Power generation and direction. Intention (yi). The things that are more important than the sequences.

I see lots of bunkai that emphasize the sequence of the movements. This arm does this, you move here, etc. etc.. Ok. That concept of kata, that the sequence of movements in itself holds the key to using them is pretty appealing. It means if you learn the sequence you can then learn the application. By learning more sequences you learn more applications, and by extension have more skill. But it is also a very shallow understanding of form, of what kata is doing and how it fits into a system. It says anyone can do the applications if they know the sequence. It implies the shape of the movements holds the key, as opposed to what is inside that shape.

To make the kata movements work, and make sense, you have to contextualize them within the system. This is really not complex. It means they have to be used in concert with how the system works. What is the range preferred might be one element. One of the most important elements when looking at kata, in my opinion, is how the body works. How does the system generate power. How does it move. How does it deal with strength and structure. And so on. Looked at this way the kata are not isolated “textbooks of technique”. They are part of a system. That means they don’t function on their own.

For example, a movement that looks like a press, the palm edge rotating down from a defending position at mid extension, might actually be a strike to break bones if the system focuses on short power development but could never be interpreted that way if that type of power development was not in the practitioner’s body. What looks like an extended arm deflection might be a powerful throw if the system has good methodology for developing the “frame” and waist-shoulder-arm connection and power, an option that would again be invisible or impossible if you don’t have that skill.

So while learning a bunch of forms might teach you some interesting techniques or combinations, it really won’t help your art grow any. Those techniques will all be bordered by the skills you have. You will see in them what you already know. This may or may not be what the system was designed for…

That is one of the difficulties with kata. They do hold application for the system. But this may look mysterious or seem confusing if you don’t have the system’s approach in your body and mind. (It may still, but a topic for a different time!) It may lead to some pretty convoluted, or conversely really simple, applications if what you are doing, probably without knowing it, is working out an application that doesn’t include the attributes of the system, that is actually working around the skills you don’t have. It may even resemble the movements at the end, and so how to say it is wrong? But starting with the system’s foci- power, range, structure, etc.- might lead to some very different answers.

And this is where taking in lots of forms can be very misleading. It is nice to think that by learning the “highest” kata in a system you have been given some secret or special knowledge. You can even (shhh!) short circuit the system by learning the highest forms from another source, even from video. But if the secrets to the application of these forms are not in the sequence but in how they are done, you have not really short circuited anything because you have not learned the skills that make these forms work properly. You don’t know what you don’t know.

An analogy I have used is dropping a Ferrari engine and transmission in a pick up truck. With some effort you might be able to get the truck to go, even to haul things. But it won’t really work right. The transmission probably won’t take the load from the engine with a bed full of gravel. And the other way around? The truck engine and transmission won’t really get the Ferrari to move like it could with the right insides. What a shame… In much the same way the applications in the forms require the right engine. That is the lens to see them through. Different engine, different capacities, different answer.

This really comes to the fore when learning forms from other systems. Without also learning their engines all they do is reflect what you already have. I’ve had the pleasure to experience a number of good systems in seminars or from friends. I have enjoyed and learned from it. But if I were to do a Hsing’I form it wouldn’t be Hsing’I. It would be Goju, or Feeding Crane, or Kingai, or the mix of those that I brought to the form. If I examined it for application I would find applications I could do, ones that ran off my Goju, Kingai, and Feeding Crane body skills and tactics.

So secrets in the kata. Yup. They are there. And they come out through the basics of the system. Not what we often think of as basics- punches, kicks, etc.- but the real basics. Power, structure, sensitivity, options, position, all the choices inside these variables the system prefers. Using those as a lens opens the kata in a very different way.

Athleticism and Martial Art

So I have been struggling with injury recovery for a little while. It has me thinking about physical capacity, physicality and our training. And the difference between athleticism and martial art. This is a slightly convoluted topic. It is not that complex, really, but it is easy to head down the wrong road when looking at physicality in the martial arts. The reason I think it is simple as there are two different categories of skill and development we are talking about here. 1) Straightforward physical capability- strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.. and 2) Martial skill- power generation, sensitivity, technical capability, bodily knowledge of strategy and tactics. Simple. But also complex, for two reasons.

  1. A lot of the second category can be imitated by elements of the first. You can make up for certain amounts of power and technique with strength, you can make up for certain elements of strategy and technique with speed, etc. So it is easy to seem like you are a good martial artist if you are simply strong, fast, and well coordinated. It is equally possible to mask poorly developed arts with excellent physical capabilities. A good athlete will be able to get things to work, especially against someone with lesser capabilities, even if these things are not really that well thought out.
  2. They are not completely independent. You can’t actually be a good martial artist if you are not in good condition- strong for your body, and able to move. And, to add complexity to that, different arts require different capabilities, so that you really need to have the right musculature, flexibility, etc. to perform the art. Without that combination it doesn’t really matter how good the art is, you can’t do it.
Image result for arnold conan the barbarian what is the secret of steel

What is the riddle of Steel?

So what does this mean? Well, first it means that physicality alone is not a good indication of martial skill, and fit students are not a good indication of a good system in and of themselves. As an example, strength is really useful, and discounting it would be foolish. However, it is not the same as power. Martial power is about delivering force where you want, when you want, the way you want, and in the systems I practice often over very short distance, right down to striking impact from contact with no pull-back. This cannot be imitated by strength, but with just a little space a really strong person can often hit pretty darn hard while a weak person cannot really generate short power so it is easy to confuse the two if you don’t know what you are looking for. Training can reinforce this, depending on how you train. If the training methods pit strength on strength really frequently, with no real tools for using skill to control strength, being stronger will make it seem you are more martially capable. If you can change speed in drills you can pretend you are better at timing by being faster or speeding up to “win”. So take a close look and see what is being rewarded. A lot of time and energy can be wasted, invested in something with difficulty but no depth.

The other side of this coin is that you cannot mask physical incapacity with technique. Or, to be more precise, you can but it requires certain training modes. If you are always working with compliant partners your techniques will always work. That means you can be out of shape, simply incapable of doing the technique against a reasonably fit or intent opponent, and possibly not even know it. Your “devastating techniques” can have their fictions maintained and reinforced by the way you train. Combat has a pretty central physical element. You need to be able to push, pull, lift, turn, duck, hit, tear, etc.. So if you see training that ignores physical capacity, that insists “only the technique matters and it can be done by anyone”, take a closer look and see what is really happening. Think about it in relation to other physical activities. How well will a person in poor physical shape perform in, say, Olympic wrestling, tennis, or parkour? These activities require very specific and highly developed skill sets. And the skills developed in those sports require a certain physicality to make them doable. While technique is essential it cannot function without physicality. The physical skills required are often pretty complex and difficult, and at the highest levels of any real art require a highly trained and conditioned body, one capable of expressing the art properly. That doesn’t mean you have to be young and absurdly developed but it does mean you have to be capable of what the system demands.

Image result for little person fighting big person

I don’t think he has taken in quite enough Chanko nabe to be ready for Sumo….

Marrying the two is where real training is at. A good system will have methods for developing martial skill and good strategy. An example might be oppositional sensitivity drills, things like pushing hands, but where the drill is developed and practiced to focus on specific technical elements, minimizing (but never eliminating, that isn’t possible) the effects of pure strength or agility. Testing, as it were, for the skill in question. Good training will also develop you physically, so you are capable to doing what the system requires. 

I have found that the two then reinforce each other. The system has certain attributes it requires for functioning properly- if you can’t get your body to do what is required you can’t do the art. So it develops these attributes. An example I have seen from my Feeding Crane sifu is that a number of times he has taught seminars and included certain techniques. These are often meant to give a flavor of the system as much as anything else. People will often dissect them and demonstrate how they are unrealistic. They will say things like “this won’t work, no one can really do that”. Sifu will laugh and say something along the lines of “well, it will work if your fajing is good, otherwise, no, it won’t. It won’t work for you because you don’t have short power.” And then make it clear he could get the technique to work. As can other people there, those with the correct martial power. But developing that is hard work-  lots of it, painful, tiring, and time consuming. Don’t do the work, the system will fail for you.  The corollary: do the work in a poor system and it will fail for you too.

So in a good art it is a web- physicality supporting techniques that are based in part on the physical and martial attributes developed by the system. In some ways a feedback loop. One of those things that make a system a system, and make it different from other well developed systems.

Anyway, long story short, don’t confuse being really fit with being a good martial artist. Good arts are far deeper than fitness, strength, and agility. They develop and do things that you can’t replicate with fitness alone, no matter how fit you are. But for goodness sake don’t call yourself a martial artist if you are not in good condition. If someone in poor shape is telling you their training will make you a good martial artist, or a good fighter, don’t believe it for a second. It just doesn’t work that way. At least not that I have ever seen.