Introduction to the Blogs
“The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping from the old ones.”
– John Maynard Keynes.
There is a set of scrolls with two vertical lines of Chinese writing that every school should have on the wall. You have probably seen them around in Chinese master’s Schools. They usually hang in a prominent place, facing the entrance, for good Feng Shui, clearly visible upon entry.
Above and between them is usually a banner scroll saying what school it is, such as “Ving Tsun Tong” or “Yip Man Tong” or “Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Kuen Hok”. Between the two scrolls and below the banner is usually a picture of the founder of the style such as Yip Man, and/or the sifu of the teacher at the school, or perhaps a partial lineage. There should be no more than 3 pictures, and in the words of my sifu, they should be dead. It is a memorial.
There is a lot of symbolism within this whole setup, and it varies considerably from style to style and school to school, but the two scrolls are fairly consistent throughout all the lineages of VTK, and indeed, something similar is found in many other styles of kung fu. They are certainly attractive and give an atmosphere of authenticity and an air of authority to the school. But what are they and what do they mean?
These days you can purchase them yourself (given that few modern sifus are also Chinese calligraphy masters, this is fair enough, and in fact we can obtain genuine ones if people are interested), but traditionally, your sifu would give them to you. You certainly should not purchase them for yourself, and although they are indeed cool to look at they are most certainly NOT merely a decoration, but instead your sifu presents them to you for an important reason. These two scrolls are traditionally presented to the student upon graduation when the student is, in the eyes of his master, a peer, and recognizable as such by the sifu’s peers.
The scrolls are usually loosely translated and, while essentially correct, the translations often lack the context. The usual translation is “Ving Tsun passed down the right way” and “making whole the nation stronger”, or something similar.
I consider the second scroll in a more general sense in that VTK will make all society stronger, in the modern context, although that is not what it literally meant in the past.
However, it is the first admonishment (the one on the right) that we should consider more carefully in this day and age of quick fixes and fast money. It is also symbolic of many things, one of which is the promise that the sifu will teach what he learned from his master, and not his own variations. ONLY the right VTK shall be passed down.
But an important point is that it is symbolic that the sifu knows real VTK AND will pass it on to the next generation intact, just like his teacher did before him. It is a symbol that he had a sifu, and learned what the sifu taught. His sifu has recognized the student’s level of accomplishment and dedication to the traditions and that he will preserve the style by teaching it correctly, and by the act of presenting the scrolls to him, publically recognizing this. It is a symbol of a relationship.
Once, in all cultures skills of all kinds – whether you wanted to be a plumber or an artist or a warrior – involved some kind of apprenticeship. The student and Master had some kind of meeting, usually some kind of test, then the new student would leave his family’s care and come under that of the teacher. He was virtually adopted into his new profession with ritual and recognitions, and learned the secrets of his new profession at the foot of the master, usually in a prolonged and often painful manner. For example, a blacksmith’s apprentice’s first task was to make his own first tools, and then he would be charged to make a length of chain of so many links, each identical, from a piece of iron – first beating it into a bar, then shaping, cutting and welding the links from this, putting them in a bucket until the bucket was filled. A seemingly pointless, mind-numbingly repetitive task that none the less taught every important lesson in the basic shaping of steel, and a first step up the long road to mastery.
Later, once he had completed all the fundamental skills to a sufficiently high level to the approval of his master and his master’s local peer group, he would become a journeyman and travel to learn new skills, improve and practice his existing ones, and gain experience in the reality of his profession. Later, he would do a masterwork, the examination of such by the other masters would elevate him into their ranks, whereupon he would be a full guild member, and able to take on his own apprentices. In time, perhaps, experience and talent would make him a great master.
The system of apprentice/master has existed in many cultures and across all time, from ancient to modern. Among other things, it was used extensively traditionally for kung fu, including VTK. Why was it so consistently used?
One thing is that this system ensured that important complex skills were transmitted from generation to generation fairly reliably. It didn’t involve difficult things like books or universities, and could be done in very trying circumstances or even on the move – or on the run from the authorities in the case of VTK for much of the modern era. It required little in the way of resources. An older person could mentor a younger person while surviving in difficult times.
This system had many advantages, but had a few problems. One such is it lacked standardization and quality control. Not all teachers were equally capable. Not all students were suitable for a particular teacher, and no doubt a lot of talent and time was wasted by these mismatches. A single master can only accommodate a limited number of apprentices at any one time, limiting the number of masters in the next generation.
Modern concepts such as centralized learning get around much of this. By using publications, everyone can learn the in-depth knowledge of the great masters, and all can avail themselves of this knowledge. They can get the practical side of the training under the tuition of the local master. Video and the internet can mean that students can learn “secrets” of their chosen field from great masters far away and/or long dead.
On the face of it, it would seem that the old way of learning from a sifu is a thing of the past, outmoded by modern teaching methodology and modern technologies. Students can learn rapidly and progress through as they need to, and no mind numbing tasks are involved. Many people can learn from a single master, rather than only a chosen and lucky few. And a student is not limited by one or even several masters, and can learn anywhere, rather than travel all the way around the globe to a master only to find that he already has all the students he wants, or he has retired.
So, what’s wrong with that? If VTK was simply a skillset, then this would not matter. Anyone could teach you to punch and to kick, and that would be the end of the discussion. However, for one thing, VTK is not simply a skill but an acquired behavior. There are elements where the student simply cannot identify within themselves the skills that he needs to acquire before moving on along the system, or indeed making VTK reflexive in a fight. A master who has watched you develop over many years can see what you need and ensure you learn it. He will coach you along so that you will develop all the required elements, and be able to use them. Without these elements, VTK is simply a bunch of dance moves. On your own, or with someone simply teaching you for money, not only is there no guarantee that you will ever acquire them, it is even more likely that the student will never be aware of them in the first place. And even if the student does learn about them and actually do some training in them, it is likely that someone who is not your own sifu will not put the time in to ensure you acquire them deeply. This often involves repetitive work that a temporary student on holidays for two weeks in Hong Kong is not going to do, and the teacher is not going to be bothered or have the time to get up to standard.
Many students have tried to sidestep tradition by learning each new level or form, each from a different teacher, or even from books and videos, or indeed the internet these days, in effect superficially learning from several masters; but in truth it doesn’t work. It is like serial one night stands – it feels good at the time, but it won’t replace a real relationship.
Just like the blacksmith’s apprentice repeatedly forging links to learn the skill of metal shaping and welding, the student needs to similarly forge his VTK into a consistent chain of skills below the conscious level. For it is on the street that these skills are needed, not in the studio. And you only get ONE chance to try.
A sifu is needed to ensure that the student is suitably forged to be the best he can be. Not just a sifu, any sifu, but your sifu.
The relationship with a sifu that extends only during holidays also lacks the personal touch that makes the individual great instead of mediocre. Standardization guarantees a minimum level, but usually sacrifices the chance of a maximum. Handmade items created by a master are always superior to mass produced factory products. It might take a long time, and few items will be created, but these few are gems. Even modern wines, for example, with their quality control, produce consistently superior vintages at the sacrifice of the great vintages that used to occur, because standardizing raises the lower standards but reduces the upper standard too, in the name of consistency. It places the average higher, but narrows the spread of skills, and removes the chance of vastly superior items.
This is the same for our martial art. It is in order to make up for at least some of this lack that this blog was written.
These blogs, when complete, will be a detailed outline of the whole system of VTK, from the first lesson to mastery of the system. Obviously, there are some things that can only be felt, and learned, in person; and just as obviously, there are limits to the written or spoken word, and even with photos and videos, and these will be used when suitable. Diagrams are used extensively as well, because they are usually clearer than photos or videos, but they also are limited. However, within these limitations, this will be as complete a guide to the system as humanly possible, far more than ever has been put together. There should be enough detail so that a person can easily see what they are up to and what they have yet to learn. It also covers the history, legends and such as best as is possible. It is not designed to be a comprehensive coverage of the various lineages, especially since there are a great number of different ‘styles’ of VTK with varying antecedents and levels of purity, many of which are quite obscure and unlikely to be encountered in the normal course of life. Some have mixed in other styles with varying degrees of success, in an attempt to cover parts of the system that the masters didn’t know, such as when the master died before teaching everything. This practice, while understandable in the past in a China that kept such things secret, is now a common and deplorable practice in the west in these modern times.
It will also cover the psychology of conflict, traditional philosophy and medicines as applied to VTK, and many ancillary details such as setting up schools, how to teach, how to run classes, and how to be a good student.
Lao Tze said that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.” This is the first step on a long, long journey.