A Matter of Survival?
Chinese martial arts are shrouded in secrecy. Secret societies, secret techniques, secret training regimes, secret locations, secret rituals… You get the idea.
Secrecy in martial arts, particularly Chinese martial arts, is a problem. In effect, it can cause the death of kung fu.
For any art to grow, it needs to expand beyond its small circle of practitioners. It needs to reach others.
For instance, look at Taekwondo and Judo, both Olympic sports. If only a few countries field competitors, they would have never been accepted at the Olympics. The visibility and prestige of being Olympic sports mean people would rather train on them than a not-Olympic sport. Therefore, there would always be practitioners of both arts.
I will argue Chinese martial arts are not as popular as Karate, arguably the world’s most popular martial art, because Chinese kung fu values secrecy. If it was not for a breakout star like Bruce Lee willing to teach foreigners and bringing Kung Fu to Hollywood or the occasional popular kung fu film, kung fu would be even more niche.
Secrecy in Chinese martial arts was for centuries a matter of survival. Chinese history is full of rebellions, warfare, and persecution. Even the mythical Shaolin Temple was burned to the ground at one point.
Hence the need for secret societies like Heaven and Earth (Tien Ti Hui), White Lotus (Bai Lieu), the Five Ancestors, Three Dots, and the Yellow Turbans, among many others. Since you were hunted by authorities, secrecy and keeping a low profile was strictly a matter of life or death. Indeed, true masters avoided flaunting their status in public.
And do not get me started on Communism and Mao’s Cultural Revolution which forced many masters to move to the West.
The Fallacy of Secret Techniques
There is a myth among martial arts but especially in Chinese arts about secret techniques. Techniques which are so deadly they could kill you in one move. Similarly, you hear stories about charlatans claiming there are secret qi techniques which allow Goku-style of moves. They are lying.
I can understand the allure of secret techniques as a marketing tool. Everyone is attracted to the forbidden. Still, it is unfair to prey on people’s naivete.
Most times, the so-called secret techniques are nothing more than advanced techniques.
Now, what does advertising secret techniques as a marketing ploy has to do with our topic? It is a symptom of a bigger issue. Secrecy is not only the withholding of techniques but also the Chinese martial arts community to be open.
For example, after three years and counting, one of my top three most-read blog posts is The Top Ten Kung Fu Styles. Moreover, follow-up posts are widely read and shared. Why?
Because there is not enough information out there in reference to traditional Chinese martial arts. And yet, there is a hunger for this kind of information.
Moreover, lots of masters (my own included) are hesitant to share information or put videos online of their art. They are afraid someone may steal their techniques (there is historical evidence of this happening in China centuries ago).
Nonetheless, it takes more than watching a five-minute video for someone to become proficient in a certain technique. In fact, it takes years of boring repetition to master a technique.
Finally, I will give the last word to Phillip Starr, author of one of my favorites books ever, The Making of a Butterfly (2006). When he asked his sifu if there were secret techniques in kung fu, his sifu replied: “Yes, they are. It is called the basics.”
I bet not the answer we were expecting.
Embracing Openness instead of Secrecy
First, we need to consider secrecy is a huge part of Chinese culture.
Their culture believes in only talking about polite stuff and not to trust strangers. A “we wash our dirty clothes at home” mentality. Also, the ruling powers have not been welcoming of martial arts unless it is on their service.
In my opinion, if it was not for the hesitation to teach non-Chinese (which is not as bad as it was fifty years ago) and the secrecy culture surrounding Chinese martial arts, kung fu would be as popular as Karate.
Rather than hide from the world, the traditional Chinese martial arts need to put on a display before the People’s Republic sanctioned Wushu (a travesty of traditional arts, basically kung fu without any real fighting application) becomes the norm.
Actually, it is kind of sad the traditional arts are more alive in the West than in their birthplace. As China keeps promoting state-sanctioned wushu, fewer people practice the traditional arts. The true Chinese arts.
It is our responsibility as traditional Chinese martial arts students to keep promoting them and do not let them become extinct.
A world without traditional Chinese martial arts would be a sad one. And not only the Shaolin arts. Lots of Hakka, family styles, Wudang, and Taoist arts are endangered. Not every Chinese style is as popular as Wing Chun or Southern Shaolin.
All Chinese martial artists regardless of style or tradition need to collaborate to protect them. Instead of arguing about who is better or who is the true heir for some obscure master, we should all collaborate to keep Chinese martial arts alive. You cannot collaborate without trust and honesty.
In summary, it is time to embrace openness in kung fu as a policy. The time from hiding from the world is over. Openness has not diminished Taekwondo, Aikido, Judo, and definitely not Karate. Furthermore, it is a matter of survival.
Reader, should Chinese martial arts become more open? Or should they vow to tradition and stay inconspicuous? What are your thoughts?
I am interested in learning at your school. I have studied, Tai chi(1), Spirit Wind, Ch’iKung 9 pieces of brocade, International School of Shiatsu, I have studied, Tang Soo Doo(1), American Karate Team I have also studied Hung Gar (1), Hung Gar Kung Fu Academy. Please send me any relevant information.
Thanks for your interest, Steven.
Just a reminder sifu Phan’s school is located in Philadelphia. Here are a couple of links.
By the way, I love Hung Gar and its brother style, Jow Ga.