I asked David if he would do an interview with me for the series. He agreed, and the result was amazing. He is the head of the Rising Crane studio, and he tells his story much better than I can. Please read and enjoy!
Wallace: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! I want to start this off by letting you give the readers a look into your training and history, so, please let us know about your background.
David: Nice to talk to you! My background; I come from Bedford, England. I have been interested in martial arts my whole life- did some judo and boxing as a kid but not very seriously. When I was 14 I went with a friend to a kung fu class and was absolutely hooked! I have been training obsessively until now, almost 30 years later.
When I was 20 after I had got my ‘Black Sash’ I wanted to take it further. I went to Hong Kong and from to Canton to find a Sifu. I trained with several good people, but the name ‘Deng Jan Gong’ kept coming up, because he was the most well-known teacher in Guangzhou at that time. I visited his school and after one meeting decided I had found my Sifu. Deng Sifu is a fifth generation kung fu master, who teaches Hap Gar, Hung Gar and Taijiquan. The first visit I stayed for several months and had four hours of private tuition per day, plus four hours of group training. At the time I thought that was just normal, but later Sifu told me he thought I was crazy!
Wallace: That is incredible!
David: Returning to England with a head full of kung fu, I needed to practice and process the information before returning to Canton. I travelled some more, training and teaching in several countries, then decided to study Acupuncture. I wanted to better understand Chinese Medicine especially concepts like Qi and acupuncture points, because I wanted to deepen my understanding of kung fu. I also learned Cantonese, so by the time I had graduated from my three-year Chinese Medicine course, I had returned to China several times, and was able to talk more deeply with my Sifu to understand his martial arts.
In 1996 with my Sifu’s permission, I opened my school ‘Rising Crane’. I taught Kung Fu and Taiji and opened a clinic of acupuncture and Chinese massage. That time was good, and I taught a lot of people, we had six national champions and competed in traditional kung fu forms, taiji and San Shou (Full contact kick boxing).
When the MMA era started, I thought it was a good opportunity to test our kung fu. In China, challenge matches were common and my Sifu had a wealth of real world experience. For me, I was never competitive or interested in fighting for sport, but it was very important to me that I test what I teach- so that I can teach from my own experience rather than second-hand. I started to visit and cross train in other schools and that was a revelation to me! Since 2005 I have studied no-gi grappling with Braulio Estima, one of the best BJJ fighters in the world. I have incorporated the ground grappling into our curriculum and continue to take private lessons with him. I have also trained in MMA camps in USA and Thailand to spar with professional fighters and improve my skills.
When I visited Hawaii to take some lessons with Burton Richardson, I saw that he had applied the same MMA mentality to his self-defense and weapon classes. His training methods greatly impressed me and I began teaching my kung fu techniques and weapons in a more functional, sparring oriented way using modern protective equipment and safe weapons.
Now I am no longer involved with forms competitions or performance type martial arts and am more interested in developing functional skills. Our school has a thriving MMA competition team, and I think that is a healthy thing, but most students come to get fit and learn self-defense, and we can give them both of those things by combining the best of the traditional and modern approaches.
Wallace: That is one wild ride of a training history! Very impressive! I also like the fact that you put your money where your mouth is and send out a team to compete in MMA. I have to ask, do you still follow the concepts of Qi with your new approach to teaching and training?
David: Interesting question! I don’t think you can really separate an art from the culture that created it. Words like ‘Qi’ are common concepts in China. For instance ‘Heaven Qi’ simply means ‘weather’. As used in martial arts, Qi is the energy mobilized by intent. Stronger intent produces a stronger neural stimulus, more rapid and complete firing of muscle fibers etc. This is just one example, because it’s a complex subject. The problem is that when translated, people often make it something mystical. I never heard my Sifu imply anything supernatural, it’s simply a useful metaphor. To answer your question- if I am teaching an MMA class I will often use concepts of ‘flowing’, ‘not resisting’, ‘borrowing force’ from TCMA because they are useful, it’s not necessary to use Chinese language, though! If I am teaching a Taiji class it’s different, because the people have come to learn something cultural, so I may use some Chinese terms.
Wallace: I like that answer. There is a lot that gets lost in translation when you take something as complex and involved as Chinese Martial Arts and drop it into a totally new context, such as when CMA are trained in a Western country with a totally different culture. Well said! Regarding the previous answer, let me have you expand on the thought of developing functional skills. How difficult is it to take Chinese Martial Arts, which in some styles have a lot of movements which are not fighting techniques, or might have some application to fighting, but have definitely been changed to performance…how hard is it to separate those items from what is functional?
David: If you don’t know what fighting is, it’s impossible to get functional skills from classical forms. People don’t realize that the ‘Traditional’ Sifu were always fighting!
Wallace: And strangely enough, modern “traditional” Sifu as often as not refuse to fight…
David: Practicing forms for performance is modern, not traditional. If I were to take one of my fighters and teach him a form, it would be easy because he would have a frame of reference. I could say, for example- “Fake with this hand, then throw the kick. This is a pummel into a wrestling move. This is an arm drag. This is hand fighting for grips” etc. Some of the moves are more for conditioning, so I could say “This is the same function as a kettle bell swing, this low posture is to improve your squatting strength” some are for rehab/prehab: “This is a stretch for your rotator cuff” “This is to open your hips and will help with kicking/grappling” For Qigong: “This is to calm you down and lower your heart rate” for Nei Gong:”This is for your core strength”, “This will help you take a punch to the gut”, EVERYTHING has a function, it’s just whether or not it is relevant for the student, and whether the Sifu really knows what he is teaching. If the student had some fighting experience, he could take what was useful for him.
The problem is somebody who has no understanding of fighting learns a form still can’t fight- it’s backwards!
Wallace: I have to agree 100% with this. What about application study?
David: Learning “applications” does not make you a fighter. I could show you what all of the controls for a fighter jet were for, that wouldn’t make you a pilot. The old days you would learn by flying. Today we have simulators. That’s what I take from modern training: Simulations using protective equipment that become progressively more realistic enables a high volume of quality practice without getting injured. Then you develop truly functional skills. The forms are the textbook, not the simulation.
Wallace: I love that analogy you used here about flight simulators! And for students who do not want to practice fighting?
David: Of course I still have some students who enjoy practicing forms but do not want to engage in fight practice. That’s fine, too, but I wouldn’t call it traditional and I would not mislead those students that they are getting functional skills.
My Sifu was very practical: Initially his methods seemed crude or unsophisticated to me, compared to some of the stuff other teachers showed me (like overly complicated traps, bridges, chin-na etc.), but that was because he was a real fighter. If you just sit around and talk fighting, the more complex stuff seems better, but once you actually engage in hard sparring, you find that the simple stuff works best. As MMA evolved, I found out that my Sifu’s methods worked well, but I had to find out for myself. The problem is that a lot of TCMA people want to be different or special so they say “We don’t fight like that”, “Our style is different” etc. The truth is that a fight is a fight. All styles will be similar when they are trained realistically. If you are trying to make your fighting “look like” your forms or something very different from what the reality of the fight IS, you are already lost.
Wallace: I have told my students this same thing, the so-called “proper” techniques necessarily break down when faced with the timing and distance that a real fight has.
David: You are right! Think of dogs: they all share the common ancestor of the wolf. The ones who have been bred for show would probably not last long in the wild! but the DNA is there, if they were put back into the wild, some would survive, breed and gradually would go back to resembling their wild ancestors. Martial arts are the same- styles that have not fought for some generations have become ‘show dogs’ with the characteristics exaggerated. Psychologists call it the ‘Peak Shift Effect”. They look nice but the exaggerations are not functional. Once the style gets into the cage it will either be defeated, or gradually come to resemble the reality of what the fight really is. That is uncomfortable to a lot of people who engage in a kind of fantasy practice that they are ‘too deadly for the cage’ or some other form of denial.
Wallace: I know a lot of martial artists who just bristled at that one…the truth can sting for those in denial.
David: Yes, it may not be comfortable, but the truth is that if you cannot perform against a guy wearing gloves on a mat going at 70%, what makes you think you will do well against some lunatic with a knife on a pavement going at 100%?
Wallace: The delusion is what gets to me. I have known people who claimed their system was “too deadly” for even basic sparring, but when they did forms is was all flash and the usual dog and pony show. And some of them don’t even want to know if what they practice works. So, let’s follow up a little on the fighting versus forms idea. Would you feel that the rush to train forms is backward and that to be truly traditional, the forms could be used later to help the student classify and more easily remember the concepts?
David: From my research I have concluded that traditionally the training had three parts: Lin Gong, San Sau, and Tao Lu. Lin gong is the physical conditioning: Training strength, stamina, flexibility and tempering the body for impact. Without this your art is empty. Your movements will not have the ‘stopping power’ necessary to do damage.
San Sau is the free hand practice. You mentioned ‘Timing and distance’. These are the most important things in a fight. San Sau practice is like ‘specific’ or ‘situational sparring’- you are working on a specific technique- setups, counters etc. The opponent may start with cooperative practice then gradually increase the resistance. This is how you learn to fight.
The biggest drop out for students is the ‘san sau’, stage. People will happily endure sweating and hard training because they want to look fit and slim! Schools that emphasize fitness and weight loss are very busy these days. Once people get punched in the face, kicked in the leg or have to ‘tap out’ to somebody, it suddenly becomes less appealing!
Wallace: Ha! Again, agreed 100%. I call it “when reality rears its ugly head”.
David: Hitting a bag I visualize winning- it’s empowering. Once I engage in ‘san sau’ I realize, as the Brazilians say: “You have to spend a lot of time as the nail before you get to be the hammer”. That’s not fun! If you skip this stage and go straight to ‘TaoLu’ you can have a busy school, happy students who learn loads of forms etc. If you are teaching a cultural art it’s fine, but if you use terms like ‘self defence’ or ‘combat’ in your adverts you will need to honestly question if you are misleading yourself or your students.
Wallace: Here in the U.S. many instructors don’t really care if they are misleading their students. And let our readers know what Tao Lu is, if you do not mind.
David: Tao Lu is the forms practice, the third stage of training. This is when the student has already learned to fight. It is like a mnemonic of all of the techniques, concepts and body mechanics. It is a refinement process. Traditionally, a master would have perfected 3-5 forms, not the dozens that is commonly seen in the modern syllabus.
Wallace: And this would be an order and progress of training that makes sense! Also the accumulation of a massive number of forms was never traditional!
David: These days with the internet, DVD’s, ease of video taping your techniques with a mobile phone etc. there are better ways to organize, classify and remember concepts.
With modern sports science, strength and conditioning, nutrition etc. there are better ways to physically develop and condition the body.
There are people who collect and restore classic racing cars. They may prefer the old style and the feeling of driving them. They don’t justify their hobby by saying “These cars are too fast to compete in the modern F1 tournament.” everybody knows that in terms of performance there is no comparison to a modern sports car.
David: The interesting question is WHY do we want to preserve the old training?
Is your goal to preserve tradition or to produce students who can fight? Both might be worthwhile goals, but don’t get them confused. Why do we want to practice forms? There is a great benefit for your mind and body, plus there is the feeling of accomplishment that comes from performing a form well. There is a feeling of being linked to a past, a tradition going back generations. Modern sports science has shown however, that there is not much of a transfer between the skill achieved in fixed practice to the random chaos of a fight. For us instructors that have practiced forms for decades there is the ‘sunk cost fallacy’: We don’t want to drop something that we have invested a lot of time into so we create reasons to continue the practice. We rationalize, justify, desperately look for evidence that will confirm the usefulness of our practice.
Some other martial artists have dropped the classical forms and have become like ex-smokers or militant atheists: Loudly proclaiming that its all nonsense and criticizing those who engage in such practices.
As for me: this morning I practiced my forms in the garden. It was sunny. There were butterflies and rabbits around. I felt good. That’s it. I don’t really have a ‘why’. Chuang Tzu called it ‘the virtue of uselessness’.
Wallace: The scene you just described calls to mind for me a talk from Alan Watts, “Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll with his, ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the moro grove and the mome raths outgrabe’ Why is it all those old English songs are full of those ‘Foldy riddle Aye doe’ and ‘Hey nonny nonny’. Why is it when we get hip with jazz we just go boody boop dee boo and enjoy swinging it?” It is a participation in a glorious nonsense.
David: ‘Jabberwocky’- Wonderful! So the whole thing is this balance between spontaneity and deliberate intent. There is a time to deeply question and analyze, and there is a time to just shut up and punch! People tend to exist in one camp or another and Zen or whatever is about the marriage of the two, or perhaps better- going beyond the illusion of the separateness of the two.
Wallace: Where do you want your training to go from here? In what direction do you see yourself heading?
David: I am in the process of setting up a new academy that will be much bigger and better than my current one. The vision is to have downstairs as a very modern MMA type academy with all of the facilities and equipment that you would expect, plus we will have experts in grappling, striking, strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports psychology. Upstairs will be a very traditional type of ‘Mo Kwoon’ and clinic, so the students will have the best of both worlds.
As for my own training- I honestly don’t know where it is going! I love to travel, study and teach, and continually research both the old and the new. As things evolve and develop my opinions and ideas naturally change, it is a process. What I do know is that I am looking forward to continuing to train with really good people, teaching really good students, and just seeing where the ride takes me!
Wallace: That is the same approach I am currently taking. It is good to just enjoy the training and see where the path leads!
We live in the age of the McDojo. We have people who have never been in a fight, or at least have not been in a fight since Junior High, teaching people self-defense classes, etc. But we also have people who know what they are talking about who are starting to get more (well deserved) attention. Speaking as specifically or as generally as you prefer, how do you feel about the health and direction of the martial arts as a whole in our time?
David: That is a difficult question because there is just so much good and so much bad.
David: Whenever you have an organization with ranks and titles, ‘esoteric’ knowledge, internal training akin to hypnosis, there is the potential for abuse of power, ego trips etc. I think this is worse in America, but England is catching up. Once when I was in Hong Kong, an American teacher gave me his business card. It said “Grandmaster XXX”. I really think that is a funny thing, when you put ‘Grandmaster’ on your business card! In China, you would call your Teacher’s teacher ‘Si-Gung’. It’s a respect thing. Kind of like ‘Grandfather’. It is not a rank, and he would not have it on his business card!
I read an excellent article by Matt Thornton who said that the sporting approach is a lot healthier because you cut all of the nonsense out and focus on performance. There is no potential for that kind of delusion in sport because once you have competition, the truth will come out. I really sympathize with that because then you chase skill, not rank. Drop all of the unhealthy BS and the competition will create the art in a kind of Darwinian evolution: There is nobody at the top organizing it, the cream rises to the top and the truth will out. While part of me agrees with this, another part of me sees MMA as another manifestation of the American cultural invasion of the world. Please don’t take offense, here!
Wallace: None taken my friend!
David: Being older, English, and having spent a lot of time in Chinese culture, I have a different perspective to a young American person. It is easy for an American to see MMA as ‘pure’ sport that is not clouded by ‘Oriental mumbo jumbo’. Actually, it has simply replaced the cultural values of the Orient with those of America. I sit through a ‘UFC’ match with a very different experience to my students: I endure political rants by the commentators, adverts for motorcycles, hamburgers, popcorn, trash talk, half naked females, scary tattoos, haircuts, rock music, rap music etc. It’s the culture of MMA and it really doesn’t interest me. I’m just watching it for the fighting, see?
Wallace: Yes sir!
David: When I go into a traditional Kung Fu school, drink some good tea, discuss history or philosophy with a Sifu, practice a form, touch hands (friendly sparring/exchanging techniques) I enjoy that culture. I guess I’m a dinosaur!
Wallace: Count me as a dinosaur too then.
David: When I was in Thailand, they were trying to ban MMA because they saw it as a threat to their tradition of Muay Thai. Ground fighting was considered low-class. But once you have rolled with a world champion BJJ player, you understand it’s a beautiful thing! But BJJ has its own assumptions too. I have heard BJJ guys saying that if you win a fight with striking it ‘doesn’t count’ and ‘you have to train in a Gi if you want to do MMA’. ALL culture has bias! When you have seen through it you feel kind of homeless…. In Zen it is called “Above there is not a single roof tile, below there is no ground to plant a hoe”.
Wallace: I want to thank you for this amazing experience! This has been very educational for me, and I know that my readers will benefit from your words of wisdom! In parting I would like to get the information anyone wishing to contact you or train with you might need, so, if you would be so kind as to let them know?
David: Thank you for the opportunity to rant! I think you are doing a great job with your blog- we need more critical thinking in the world and also people who understand the distinction between martial arts and self defense.
If people want to see what kind of things I do, the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/rising.centre is a good place to start, I have put up a lot of free instructional videos and articles. The website for my school is http://www.risingcrane.co.uk/index.html you can contact me through the website, or if you are local, you can find me at the school every night.
Wallace: I thank you for the kind words on my site. I want to help people, and martial arts are a perfect vehicle to do so in my opinion. I would like to do this again sometime and perhaps explore some of these great thoughts in more depth, if you would be open to the idea.