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The Fundamentalist vs the Upstart: Martial Art's History of the Teacher/Student Rivalry

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


Recently there was a Youtube video that went viral amongst the martial arts community. A Wing Chun teacher was teaching his class at his home when a young kid walks in and begins to correct him. Supposedly the boy claimed to be a Jeet Kun Do practitioner, and if anyone knows the history of those styles with Bruce Lee, then they know it's a bit convoluted. Some think the relationship is respectful, while others believe there’s a rivalry.

Either way, at some point the teacher decides he’s had enough and challenges the kid. Things escalate and a fight breaks out. The kid loses his footing, falls, and is beat down by the teacher, who admittedly didn’t use any of his teachings at all, which I find embarrassing. While the upstart embarrassed himself as well, as the style he claimed was superior by his own arrogance and clumsiness.

Perhaps the most amusing fact to me is that this didn’t occur in China, where such duels are usually filmed, but in America.

"The student will always try to defy the master. Always."

— - Maggie Q

A Shrinking Reality

I am going to start my argument out with a presumption: that the odds of a teacher finding someone with zero fighting experience or previous knowledge is rather small, in my opinion.

Don't get me wrong, it certainly can happen. But thanks to the growing popularity of martial arts over the last fifty years, paired with the internet’s penitent for having free ‘lessons’ for anyone to learn a style from half a world away, that likelihood is shrinking.

My experience has been that teachers by nature have a very conservative view when it comes to their chosen disciplines. To call it ‘dogmatic’ would not be far off the mark. There have always been various reasons for this, based on the era, people involved, and the culture it was raised in.

Japan has successfully exported their marital history for the last seventy years through World War Two vets learning Karate and Aikido and bringing them back to the states. Likewise, Tae Kwondo has a similar story as well and this is often because of the forced exposure of Western influence by circumstance, and the need and ability of those cultures to adapt to the situation. Yet this is not all styles.

As popular as ninjas have become, actual traditional ninjutsu is still taught to a very select few. This is in part due to their history with the old Sengoku Wars and their creators’ resistance to forced unification. When the Meiji Restoration finally brought peace, one of their decisions was to outlaw/restrict martial arts, including ninjutsu. Thus forcing it to be passed along in secret.

Hollywood has done as much to promote the martial arts as mixed martial arts sports.  A byproduct being  the creation of idealized expectations of how they work that is often far from reality.

Hollywood has done as much to promote the martial arts as mixed martial arts sports. A byproduct being the creation of idealized expectations of how they work that is often far from reality.

Similar to ninjutsu, the various forms of kung fu were virtually unknown to the West until the 1960’s and 70’s. This was largely due the popularity of it’s underground films that made their way from Hong Kong, but also due to the efforts of Bruce Lee trying to expose American culture to the idea of a Chinese hero. These efforts encountered obstacles from the Chinese-American communities, who preferred to keep their martial styles secret. As is well known now, Bruce Lee fought a Kung Fu master for the right to teach his burgeoning fighting style to outsiders.

Suffice it to say that during this time of cultural exposure, it was for the most part easier to bring in a clueless novice and “fill their cup”. However, as other fighting arts from across the world have increased their global presence, I believe that this inevitably led to increasing encounters between different schools/styles trying to outdo the other. Even Western wrestling and boxing.

The mainstream scene was becoming more crowded with more and more martial arts in the public eye and creating enthusiasts wanting to learn them. Cross-pollination was natural as seekers would wander from one school/teacher to the other. More than likely encountering the school’s ego about their own superiority or individuality to their peers.

Superior Ability Breeds Superior Ambition

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Along with martial arts’ proliferation in movies came another factor that helped increase the rivalry of the upstart vs the teacher. That factor was the combination of the nature of fighting, with the recklessness and cool factor of youth.

As I have often said often, all martial artists have egos. A big part of that ego is the subtle- yet powerful temptation, to actually try out a technique on live targets. Because of how cool the style looked in the theater and its exotic element, you couldn't help but get excited. To feel powerful, even invincible. So going to another school and encountering another style you didn't know and were told was inferior to your own, would almost certainly breed a desire to challenge them and to show them up.

The viral videos from China of Chinese MMA fighters dueling and beating down TMA teachers is a classic example of this. But perhaps the biggest example of this was the explosion of UFC underground matches in the late 90’s. Finally giving us a real ‘Bloodsport’ scenario as contenders, from street fighters and bouncers, to sumo wrestlers and high degree black belts, jumped at the chance to actually test their skills in combat. And establish their styles’ dominance over the others.

The 1999 movie Fight Club also added its own influence into the cultural zeitgeist, following the idea of underground, bare-knuckle matches in seedy and dark locations. There was even a girl’s fight club that a friend of mine tried to get into when I was in college.

What all this did was create a pool of both wanna-be and actual bad-asses looking to scrap for the thrill of defeating a rival and asserting their own dominance. And there was no bigger thrill than doing that to an experienced teacher.

The final event horizon was the internet, which combined mainstream exposure with easy accessibility. Prior to the web, you could buy books and magazines on various martial arts. But it was a niche audience and you oftentimes had to go to an actual martial arts store to get them. These limited the number of people exposed to them.

However the internet, Youtube especially, finally seems to give true seekers a chance to learn even the most obscure fighting styles. And you didn't have to be a teacher either. If you knew something and had a camera, you could post it and sound like you actually knew what the hell you were saying and doing.

"I'm not a master. I'm a student-master, meaning I have the knowledge of a master and the expertise of a master, but I'm still learning. So I'm a student-master. I consider the master as such when they close the casket."

— - Bruce Lee

Sensei’s Prerogative

The result of this evolution in the mainstream and martial arts communities has been, in my experience, an awareness and hesitation from teachers of any style. Nothing seemed more insulting to them than some jack-ass hellbent on showing you how bad your style was that you put years of dedication into. And even if you weren't looking to fight, but just to learn, such as myself, the natural questions they might have would seem uncomfortable to some teachers. Not just because it was discussing a style that they had little/no knowledge of, but because it also forced an implication into the potential weaknesses within your own.

Most times I encountered a polite, "we teach this here and you can stay if you want”. While not a back alley challenge at midnight, I often could not help but feel insulted. Not because they didn't have the right to say that, because they did. You don’t have to learn an extra bit of knowledge if you want to. Rather it was because of the deliberate choice of capping off knowledge. It came off as low-key combative.

When I compare JKD with Silat or muay thai and kickboxing, it's not to establish which one is better because I know that there isn’t a ‘better’ style. Everyone has their own high points and low points. I compare them to see the interaction between the two and what that creates. It's the creativity that is forced into existence that appeals most to me. That was always the appeal for me from Bloodsport to the UFC match I watched last week.

To Bending Without Breaking

I believe that teachers are going to need to expand their horizons, or at the least learn to communicate a less hostile attitude when dealing with students who are experienced, but not combative. The ‘my way or highway’ is what helps ferment the animosity between those idiots who are looking to scrap and teachers ready to defend their own turf.

There’s too much knowledge and too easy access to that knowledge in the world now. And those same elements that allowed their styles to get noticed also create space for it to be questioned by other kids on the block.

There’s nothing wrong with learning things about other styles outside your own. It doesn't mean you have to betray them, or that you have to establish superiority in your style’s skillset. Rather, it broadens the mind and opens the eyes to see how the different styles reflect their originators’ priorities and perspectives on how they see the world.

And as violent as the martial arts are, because they are all inherently violent, I honestly think that nothing else communicates such diversity so beautifully.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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