Ancient maple, struck by lightening. Conewango valley, October 2012. Photo Credit: Tara Judkins. 

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Thirty-three:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

I am currently reading, and quite enjoying, Steal My Art: The Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master, T.T. Liang(North Atlantic Books, 2002) by Stuart Olson.  The book reads more like a memoire written in the third person than an academic biography, but it does capture the flavor of Master Liang’s life and it has gotten me thinking about a number of things.  Master Liang is certainly going on my list of figures that need to be profiled in the “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series.  He lived through a seminal period of martial arts history and his mid-life “salvation via the martial arts” narrative is very interesting and something that we have not yet touched on.

That post will have to wait for another day.  Right now I am even more interested in a couple of ideas that he advanced which seem to be quite important for martial artists of any style.  While Liang taught Yang Style Taiji, and his ideas have a very specific technical application in that setting, I think that the principals that underlay them can be generalized and applied to the martial arts more generally.  In this post I would like to use his theories to address an issue that I have seen in the Wing Chun community.

Retention of older martial artists is a problem for a number of styles.  Sometimes the barriers are physical.  While it is not impossible, it is very difficult for the average 40 year old American to walk into a Tae Kwon Do school and succeed at the highest levels of the sport.  Nor does this just apply to new students.  Even longtime Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin and Karate students find their martial arts careers coming to an end as injuries mount and it becomes impossible to pick oneself up off the mat, time after time, night after night.

A handful of these individuals will go on to be teachers or business owners, but most will drift away from the sport.  This is a problem because as they drift away they take their collective years of experience and insight with them.  It is also a tragedy on a more personal level.  As their activity level wanes whatever self-defense and health benefits they derived from their years of training quickly vanish.

I am always depressed with the number of “former” martial artists that I meet and talk to as I do my research.  Still, for a certain set of styles this is simply accepted as the nature of the exercise.  As one local Judoka said “Its just the nature of the game.”

Nevertheless, some “games” are less forgiving than others.  One suspects that the average athletic career of a professional MMA fighter will probably be a couple of years, whereas the average Taiji instructor might be active for decades.  In fact, one of the reasons why I really admire the Taiji community is that they have come up with a workable solution to this problem.  Young martial artists can be taught physically demanding acrobatic and boxing techniques, middle aged individuals can focus on self-defense and pushing hands, and even the very elderly can be involved in ongoing teaching, education and Qigong practice.  It is really a much better system than abandoning everyone that you have trained for a decade or two once they turn 35.

Freshly cut corn in the Conewango valley. October, 2012. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Eleven:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Age, Experience and Retention in the American Wing Chun Community

Then there are other arts that seem to be partway between these two extremes.  Wing Chun is one such case.  It seems to me that we pay a lot of lip service to this being an art that one can do even as a senior citizen.  We point to individuals like Ip Man or his sons who have practiced the art, at a high level, well into their golden years.  And yet in my admittedly limited, personal and unscientific experience, we don’t actually have too many students who stick around until they are middle aged.

This is something of a paradox.  Chi Sao can be done at a lot of different levels of intensity, and it has real value at all of them.  It is also a game that really rewards experience and good instincts.  Sure you might want to scale back the ground work and intensive iron palm training as you glide into your senior years, but there is nothing fundamental about Wing Chun that excludes individuals over the age of 45.  Just look at the Ip family.

I suspect that our problem is actually how we introduce the art to our students.  We talk a lot about self-defense.  And that is really important.  The possibility of real violence is that external check that keeps what we do “real” and on task.  And quite frankly, senior citizens need basic self-defense skills as much as anyone else, probably more.

However, if that is our only focus I think we end up limiting ourselves.  Most Wing Chun schools have a progression of classes that track the three unarmed forms, the dummy and then weapons.  I have noticed that a couple of my Kung Fu brothers have gone through the system, gotten to the end (or very close to it), and realizing that there was “nothing new to learn” just sort of fade out.  Once they stop training regularly it doesn’t take too long before their skills and knowledge fade.

Obviously a lot can happen in a life.  People get new jobs, move or their health deteriorates.  That sort of stuff is understandable.  But sticking around for five years just to quit when you “graduate” in year six?  That has always seemed like an odd approach to Wing Chun.  I don’t think anyone consciously intends to do it, and yet it seems to happen pretty frequently anyway.

One room schoolhouse. October 2012, Conewango Valley.  Photo credit: Tara Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Twelve:

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

T. T. Liang and the four goals of a martial artist.

Well, what would Master T. T. Liang have to say about this?  “Bullshit!” would almost inevitably be his answer.  Olson reports that this scatological outburst was his trademark invective, almost his catchphrase if you will.  On a more productive note Liang would probably remind us that that we need to think very seriously about our goals when starting a martial art, and to revisit those goals regularly throughout our training.

Liang claimed that any Taiji player (or in our case Wing Chun student) has four basic goals that define and allow one to navigate a lifetime of study.  These are health, self-defense, mental accomplishment and immortality.  In one sense you work on these goals one at a time, starting with basic health and moving on from there.  On a deeper level I think that you will find that they are all interconnected in profound ways and reinforce one another.

Starting with the basics, health and physical conditioning have got to be the foundation of any martial practice.  It does no good to start serious self-defense training if the student won’t be able to withstand the training and ends up injured.  We actually see that happen a lot in the martial arts world and its totally counterproductive.  Fundamentally we practice the martial arts because we want to accomplish something that we could not before (e.g., we seek power) and being injured or maimed is not really advancing that goal.  Yet this is what will almost certainly happen if we just throw our students in at the deep end of the pool.

So first you build basic core strength, physical condition, bone density, balance and cardiovascular fitness.  You need all of these things before you can Chi Sao at a high level, but you also need all of these things to fully enjoy an active and healthy life.  Like Taiji, Wing Chun understands that the best way to build up these health benefits is slowly, and in service of some other goal where students derive enjoyment and can see immediate feedback as to their progress.  I suspect that this why these sorts of martial arts work as a health building tool for so many people who might otherwise not succeed in a mundane gym environment.

Once the body has been strengthened and conditioned, you can turn your discussion to a serious study of self-defense.  Of course self-defense has never been absent from the class.  It was motivating the punching and stepping drills, gave purpose to the core-strengthening exercises and kept students motivated.

Still, there is something fundamentally different about the approach to self-defense that is seen at the Siu Lim Tao level verses at the Chum Kiu or Biu Jee level.  As my Sifu explained it to me, in Siu Lim Tao we were learning the basic motions, the “alphabet” of combat.  In Chum Kiu entire words and phrases became possible.

By Biu Jee students should be able to read the intentions of their opponents clearly and easily, and express their own creative “questions” in turn.  As the dummy and weapons are mastered one goes from having simple conversations to being empowered to make and understand complex arguments about the nature of violence and defense.  Health and conditioning never really go away in this process, but they do fade as a priority as students become more focused on the multiparty exchange that is self-defense.

It seems that this is as far as most students ever get in the Wing Chun system.  Self-defense is a sufficient goal to sustain you through the swords, but for reasons that I admit that I do not clearly understand, it doesn’t seem to be enough to justify the continued sacrifice which regular training demands once all of the “information” in the system has been acquired.

This is a shame, because on some level the “information” is not what Wing Chun is really about.  It is good to have it, and it is essential if you are planning on teaching.  But reading your opponent and “knowing what to do next” is less than 50% of the battle.  More important than controlling your opponent is learning to read and control yourself.

We have all had the experience in Chi Sao where an opponent comes at us repeatedly with a certain kind of energy.  Perhaps they are always advancing straight forward with penetrating blows, or maybe they always (and only) seek to unbalance you by sticking and shifting.  Once your opponent does the same thing a couple of times it is easy to figure out what is going on and counter it.  A skillful opponent will immediately switch tactics, but on a bad day we all might fail to adjust.  And some individuals just don’t seem to be able to shift gears.  Have you ever wondered why?

This is where “mental accomplishment” becomes critical to the performance of the martial arts.  Every physical technique you use is an expression of a prior mental impulse, and the hard truth is that we are all impulsive by nature.  Nor are most of us really aware of where these impulses come from.  As often as not deeply seated emotional complexes determine who we fight or react in life or death situations.  Sometimes, no matter how rational it would be to stop and adjust your strategy, you cannot do it.  Once you get tired, worn down, discouraged or angry your emotions are in control.

In Biu Jee and the dummy we teach our students not to extend any physical energy that your opponent can grab onto and manipulate against you.  Basically when in a bridged position you don’t want to commit to any given course of action first, but you would like to convince your opponent to commit to something that you can then manipulate.

The same principal is true on an emotional level as well.  You can’t afford to extend any emotional energy to your opponent that they can read, manipulate and use against you. Yes, you had better believe that your mental state effects your physical movements. You cannot afford to radiate fear, anger, hatred or even confidence.  The best Wing Chun fighters that I have seen are like a mask.  They are impossible to read emotionally when they engage in Chi Sao.  Lacking any preconceived intention, their movements are impossible to anticipate.  They simply do what is necessary and they do it without hesitation.

This is a skill that takes a lot more than five years to master.  Self-defense is critical, but at some point you realize that the enemy who is responsible for all of your losses, setbacks and humiliations is you.  Mental accomplishment is central to accomplishing the basic goals of Wing Chun, and if you achieve it the payoffs in every area of life are enormous.  But like health and self-defense skills, one must be mindful of this goal and continue to strive for it regularly.  Chi Sao is useful because it becomes a metaphor for your success more broadly, but most of the payoffs will come outside of the school.  Unfortunately few students in the Wing Chun community even seem to be aware that this is a goal worth striving for.

Lastly is the question of “immortality.”  This is one of those places where we will have to play a little fast and loose with Master Liang’s actual teachings to find some shared common ground.  Like many individuals in China, Liang was a staunch believer in the power of Qigong and traditional Taoist practices to increase both longevity and ones quality of life.  In fact, Liang made a fairly serious study of the Taoist arts of Longevity and lived to be 102 (103 in the Chinese system) meaning that he technically achieved the rank of “immortal.”  He recommended that Qigong practices be part of the repertoire of every Taiji student, and quite frankly, who am I to argue with results like the ones he demonstrated.

Nevertheless, esoteric longevity practices and Qigong have never had much of a place in traditional Wing Chun.  These sorts of concerns seem to be directly at odds with our “practical self-defense” orientation and they don’t jive with our modern western notions of science and medicine.

Still, lots of individual Wing Chun students have taken up Qigong as a separate art.  Even Ip Man used the Siu Lim Tao form for his own Qi building exercises.  This is certainly something that individuals in the Wing Chun community are free to experiment with and it might even be of great value as we age and more vigorous forms of exercise are no longer possible.  Of course Wing Chun’s once deep relationship with traditional Chinese medicine is in some ways the “last great frontier” of the art remaining to be discovered by students in the west.

It occurs to me that possibly a more metaphorical reading of this last goal might also help us to address the problem that I noted at the start of this blog.  We can achieve a different sort of immortality through the collective memory of the Wing Chun community.  I think that each one of us should make it a goal to contribute something to the art that will outlast us.  In some cases this might be the creation of a new lineage, in others it could be a book or an article.  Some might contribute time and resources to a local charity or teach classes at a community college.  But for most of us the greatest and most positive impact that we will be able to make will be contributing our unique knowledge and insights to the next generation.

Even if you don’t go off and start your own school, showing up for Chi Sao a couple of times a week and working with the younger students gives them access to literally decades of experience and insight that they might not otherwise have.  While a contribution like that may seem modest, it can have a huge impact on the overall quality of a local Wing Chun community.  I think that we should strive for “immortality,” and we should do so by strengthening our communities.

Of course to do this we need to first instill more of a “community ethos” in our students.  We need to be the ones to set a good example and to demonstrate by our actions what positive involvement in the local community looks like.  People yearn for community involvement, and if we provide a space I am sure that they will stay.

Pumpkins. Wyoming County, October 2012. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter Eight

The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.


It is hard to imagine two martial arts that could be more different theoretically or historically than Wing Chun and Taiji.  These obvious contrasts notwithstanding, I have always been interested in the Taiji community and how they do things.  I suspect that there are one or two things that we as a community can learn from them.  Ideally I would like to see all three generations of students, young adults, the middle aged and senior citizens coming together in a single space to celebrate Wing Chun more often than we do.

There are undoubtedly some technical issues I haven’t touched on.  It is probably easier for the Taiji community to have an open social structure as they meet in parks or other open spaces which, in China at least, tend to be the home turf of senior citizens anyway.  Wing Chun schools tend to meet in indoors.  Having regimented classes with a clear purpose is central to paying the rent or mortgage.    Having a lot of “former” students continuing to hang around might not fit with these sorts of short-term economic concerns.  Still, I am sure that with a little thought we can create structures that will increase and strengthen our retention of students in the long run.