Melisa Spense works with a student at her school in Oakland, Ca.  Source: Property of Melisa Spence.
Melisa Spense works with a student at her school in Oakland, Ca. Source: Property of Melisa Spence.

***Audience interaction and feedback is a critical part of any seminar or set of academic meetings.  Lacking the spontaneity of an in person gathering I turned to Melisa Spence, a dedicated students of the Chinese martial arts and a long time reader of Kung Fu Tea, to help bring a different perspective to this conversation.  Specifically, I asked her to comment on what value, if any, the project of Chinese martial studies might bring to individuals who were actively involved in the teaching and practice of the Chinese martial arts.******

Dear Ben,
        Thank you for your invitation to do a guest blog post on Kung Fu Tea. It is one of my favorite blogs, so I am greatly honored!
        One of the questions you posed to me is why martial artists should care about martial studies. From my perspective, it seems to be a given that martial artists should care about the origins and context of the art/s that we practice. But I realize that this is not always the case…. Capitalism seems to want to reduce everything to its simplest and most digestible form. At the gym, we are lucky if we get “Cardio Capoeira” which actually includes the name of a martial art. More likely it is something like “Body Combat” (TM). This turns arts which originated with people attempting to answer life and death questions into simple commodities. To me, this is only one example of how we live in a death worshipping culture. But it is an example that hits me close to home, and so I find it very distasteful.
        Clearly, having an understanding of our cultural origins and context as martial artists is an issue of respect. I also feel that the cultural elements and mythology present in various martial arts are some of the best tools we have as martial arts teachers for inspiring the imaginations of our students. I see one of our jobs as teachers to be to offer our students opportunities to imagine themselves in new ways. While the training environment can be inspiring, I also think that the histories of the arts that we practice are invaluable because they can help the student imagine possibilities beyond what they have so far directly experienced.
        I began teaching Bagua and Xingyi a year and a half ago, and am very much enjoying the opportunity that teaching offers to question what I know, and how I know what I know. This very much includes my understanding of culture. Teaching has been a great inspiration to further delve into learning about the histories and contexts for the arts that I teach, as well as to attempt to be more generally informed on the martial arts.
      I have to say that I am so grateful for the current accessibility of information. I know that even ten years ago,  information on Bagua and Xingyi, and the martial arts in general, took much more effort to obtain. It is great to be able to find so much information in blogs and on youtube, etc. I usually interact with my students online daily…. posting videos of my grand teacher, and his grand teacher, posting articles that help contextualize what we are doing. Since time in class is limited, and I want students to spend most of that time moving their bodies and not talking, I find these resources to be very helpful in terms of offering students opportunities to further their understanding and appreciation for the arts.
        My main fear about this accessibility of information is that it will encourage entitlement and complacency in martial arts students and would-be students. I think about stories of the lengths that my grand teacher went to in order to learn from more than one teacher, in a time period before cross training was so widely practiced. My hope is that the trend of more easily available information in the martial arts will encourage martial artists who are cosmopolitan, well informed and respectful of their own and others’ arts.