Are the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Danger of Becoming Irrelevant?


     There is a struggle facing the practitioners of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA). This is something which is always facing any martial art as the world evolves, but it seems at that right now we are closer to the edge of irrelevance than we ever have been before.

     In the TCMA, we have had an issue for a long time. The pretty hand gestures, the silly poses and so on, they have been there for a while. There must have been, at some point in our history, an understanding that these things were poses, and that they were part of the entertainment in our art. But somewhere, this part of our story was lost. There are still entire systems that think that the poses and gestures mean something, that they are functional, and as often as not this opinion is based on nothing stronger than the say so of the “head of lineage”.

     Over time, and with the widespread practice of either watering down the curriculum to make it more suitable for children, or listening to the nonsense spouted by people who didn’t have the wherewithal to follow the truly traditional road of hard training and hard work, far too many questionable practices had crept into the training halls. When contact was reduced to prevent injuries, at some point people began to make up stories that the techniques could not be tested, as they were too dangerous. This was never the case. Yes, the techniques were dangerous, but not so much so they could not be tested, only that they placed the student at a greater risk of injury. Then contact was reduced further and then the rules of the tournament changed to allow for techniques which were far removed from any practical application. I am certain that legal considerations came into play at some point as well. At this writing, if a student gets injured in your school, insurance rates will go up as there is always a risk of getting sued.

     Back in the 1990s, something happened that would change traditional martial arts for a long time to come. The debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship was so promoted, and such a huge spectacle, and so talked about, that no martial arts event before had compared.

     In the first UFC events, traditional martial artists had their eyes opened the hard way. All of the time spent in not testing the teachings because they were “too dangerous”, all of the time spent with a focus on non-contact, all of the lack of understanding of the basic concept of practical application and the true nature of combat came to a head, and there was no choice but to admit we were wrong.

      As TCMA faced up to the reality of what was shown to the world in the UFC events a crossroads was reached. Some of the instructors chose to pursue our roots – practical application and hard work. Other schools clung to the history (which was made up), and the mysticism.

      Karate fared better in my opinion. There was a pretty widespread renewed interest in the study of Bunkai, practical application. Much more so than in TCMA. There are always going to be those who promote themselves as masters of everything, and all traditional martial arts have problems of this nature, so it is pointless to focus on that.

      I have recently written at great length, and through several articles on the subject of the falsehood of the mystical claims of the Chinese Martial Arts. I do not wish to go further into that, but if you are interested in my opinions on the subject, the articles are published and available on this website.

     The question that forms the title of this article is direct – Are the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in danger of becoming irrelevant? The short answer is, “yes” with a “but”, long answer “no” with an “if”. 

      Yes, TCMA are in danger of becoming irrelevant, but it is avoidable.

      No, TCMA are not in danger of becoming irrelevant if we make some changes. What follows are the changes I see as being necessary if we are to remain relevant.

      1. Begin training harder. One of the biggest things that the TCMA schools should immediately take upon seeing the success of the MMA schools is to give the people what they are looking for – hard training. We all know that “kung fu” means “hard work”, lets live up to that meaning! Endless repetition of forms is not the hard work the people are looking for. The trend right now, and for the foreseeable future is to teach the fighting skills behind the martial arts, and drill them. It has to be practical. The modern martial arts student has an unlimited access to tons of information. When you start teaching and promoting BS, expect to be discovered, and expect to get shut down. There are so many ways to drill the basics that it is insane to just drill in the air or in forms. Just for the record, I am going to begin posting a series of articles and videos that will demonstrate some of the drills I use, as well as links to videos from others who have taken the lead in this movement and who are already posting such videos.

      2. Understand how to use what you teach in the forms. Let us be clear, if a student only wants MMA, they will go to an MMA school, not a TCMA school. But, if like so many people out there, they want to learn a traditional martial art, but they also want to be able to use it, they just might call a TCMA or TMA school. As an instructor, you can increase the chances of this happening if you do the work, and study and learn to use your art. If you cannot use it, you are a Master Fancypants, but not a martial artist.

      It takes extra work, and a lot of study, but live your role! If you are only in it for the money – OPEN YOUR EYES! There are much better paying jobs out there. If you truly want to be the best, then get to work and know your job.

      3. Be able to identify which parts of the forms have no function. It is painful to admit, but we have to face the fact that there are parts of our forms that have no practical usage. Once we face this fact, we are free. We are free to openly study the form and see what parts no longer have value. We don’t need to just drop these parts, but it is important to know that they are there. I take no joy in bringing this point to public attention, but facts are facts. One may well ask why I do not recommend dropping the sections, and I will answer. It would be a mistake to simply drop the sections, in my own opinion, because they are still a part of the form. The sections were put in for a reason. And while I may not understand the function, there could be one. What I will not do is try to tell my students that I know a function that I cannot understand or find. As long as the application is hidden from my sight, I am not going to make any claims that I know it. And if you try to tell me that these parts are for the development of Qi, I will hit you in the head with a steel chair.

       4. Practice critical thinking. Critical thinking is both a skill and an attitude. It is the application of certain questions to a given claim, and using the answers to evaluate whether or not the claim is well founded. This skill can be applied to any situation, evaluation, and even social issues.

      When you approach the martial arts from the perspective of critical thinking, you are able to make well thought out, informed and rational decisions. The other path is to simply accept whatever you are told as being true, and this leaves you to take whatever opinion you read or hear and adopt it as your own. In such cases, you may be right or wrong. But if you use critical thinking, you are able to examine the different positions before you take any of them as your own.

      As stated above, critical thinking is a skill and an attitude. It involves using the tools of rational, logical evaluation to determine if a claim is well founded. It allows you to react rationally to what you are told or read. You need to be able to rationally evaluate any claim made.

       5. Stop hiding. Be proud of being a practitioner of TCMA. For far too long “masters” hid from the light of day like so many cockroaches. In some cases, I am sure that they truly believed that they had some secret hidden ancient knowledge, even when they didn’t have anything secret, or even special for that matter. In other cases though, I am sure they hid from public view because they knew they didn’t really know anything, and were scared that they would be exposed as frauds.

      But for the true martial artist, stop hiding. Make videos and post them. Be public about your curriculum. The entire concept that what we teach has to be hidden from view is baseless. We say on the one hand that no one can learn form a book or video, but on the other we say that we cannot post videos because we don’t want people to learn our secret stuff.

      Which is it? Seriously.

      The traditional Japanese and Okinawan and Korean systems freely film and post their material. Why are we hiding still. Are we scared? I am taking a stand on this as stated above, I will be posting a series of videos and articles detailing everything we do and teach in my school. I hope to get the entire curriculum up before too long. I challenge other instructors of TCMA to do the same. You and I both know you don’t have anything truly secret.

      The fact is that when we move into the 21st century, we will start to regain some of the lost respectability. Some instructors have already started down this road, we should join them.