Skill, Learning and Lineage

About 3 or 4 years ago I spent several months learning a version of the traditional Chen family sword routine from a novice-level practitioner who had acquired it in a Beijing Tai Chi club. It had its beauties, but I was not content with the teacher’s interpretation of the form and therefore let it slip from my repertoire, as I have done with a number of other forms I have learned over the past forty years.

Recently I picked it up again and am now relearning it, assisted by videos of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang who was, according to that teacher, the originator of the form in his lineage. The process of reconstruction has been enjoyable and fascinating. It has also caused me to reflect upon the benefits of forms-acquisition and the dangers of fixating on lineage.

Sam Masich once told me that the process of learning a martial arts form is like a muscle; the more you work it, the stronger your ability grows and the easier the process becomes. He was once at a martial arts event where, with some other senior practitioners, he learned a Ba Gwa sabre form in a relatively limited period of time. To cement the form, with his fellow students he found some space in the hotel where the convention was being held and together they got to work at ironing out its details. At some point one of his senior teachers, Grandmaster Liang Shou-yu, looked in and said, “Ah, Bagwadao – very interesting! May I join you? Now G.M. Liang is a living repository of martial arts forms and, in an amazingly short period of time, not only did he have the form but he was also suggesting refinements to it! The point is that the grandmaster had a wonderfully developed forms-learning ability and for him the entire process was foreshortened -- from initiation to mastery.

My skill is at a much, much lower level. After 15 or 20 solo repetitions I now have a satisfactory version of the form with which I am reasonably happy. Certain of the angles have been changed, some movements adjusted and a number of others added. I “have ownership” as I tell my students who are struggling with the transition from Beginner to Novice level. One must get to the point of being able to take a form home from class and develop it as a personal practice. But I am still thinking my way through the form from move to move; my present level of practice is still concerned with sequencing and technical correctness rather than the cultivation of absorptive concentration which marks intermediate-level practice. I estimate, reinforced by advice from other senior practitioners, that it will take another 100 or so repetitions before any degree of flow and absorptive concentration can manifest.

Leaning upon an article Sam published many years ago, I see the different levels of skill as follows:

  1. Beginner: Learning the form (usually in class) and rehearsing it in the company of others. At this point one needs an exemplar to follow in order to get through the form and this is one of the primary roles of the teacher.

  2. Novice: The practitioner now knows the sequence and can go through it on his / her own. It becomes part of one’s personal independent practice, reinforced by regular class experience and the teacher’s input.

  3. Enthusiast: A degree of flow and physical enjoyment begin to manifest. This is the magic that draws one onwards, the sensual payoff. The class experience becomes a matter of enjoyment, not necessity.

  4. Expert: The practitioner knows the form very securely and also has a deep understanding of its inner principles and applications.

  5. Mastery: The practitioner’s knowledge and expertise are such that he / she can work with the form creatively so as to explore artistic expression and develop spontaneous applications. The creation of subsidiary forms may be part of this picture.

It is impossible to apply a time-line to this process; so much depends upon prior experience, self-confidence, temperament and application. Skill is not only an outcome of the process, but at the front end it is a critical determinant of what amount of time is required. The skill of the teacher is another factor. How well have the fundamentals and underlying principles been transmitted?

Which brings us to the issue of lineage. Lineage hopefully ensures that the teacher has come into contact with a traditional body of knowledge and skill which has 1. withstood the passage of time and 2. has been transmitted with some integrity from one generation of practitioner to another.

But it is no guarantee. I have seen many classes and schools led by “lineage instructors” who have gone through the process of forms acquisition, but have never progressed beyond the Enthusiast level. They may evince a degree of real skill as measured in physical ability, but little understanding of underlying principles. In some cases even Tai Chi fundamentals may be lacking.

Awhile back I saw a video of a Chinese teacher who was touring in the west and who was enjoying the adulation of his western students. When I observed that his knees were torquing, his pelvis was horizontally unstable (hence the knee issue), etc. – I was bitterly attacked online. This man was a personal student of a renowned grandmaster in the PRC and a gold medallist at various tournaments; how dare I? But the fact remained that his own master’s forms are rock-solid and evince none of the fundamental errors which are to be seen in him. The lineage is there, and a great deal of prominence and praise, but clearly the transmission has been compromised.

My Chen style lineage comes in part from Chen Fa-ke, through Tian Xiu-chen and Tian Qiu-xin. We do not know, other than from photographs, exactly what Chen Fa-ke’s form was like. Grandmaster Chen Xiao-wong has said that his research indicates that along with Lei Mu-ni, Tian Xiu-chen’s form was most like Chen Fa-ke’s. But what is fascinating is the difference we can see between Tian Xiu-chen’s form and that of his successor Tian Qiu-xin. Qiu-xin is of an incredibly high level of skill, yet his form is very different from that of his master; he has worked his own magic on it. In other words, when the form passes from one master to another, it changes. In these changes can be seen the true level of the student’s mastery. In a sense, the change testifies to the trueness of the transmission.

Change can also result from a lack of mastery. Within a lineage a student may change or drop movements which he is unable to assimilate or which he does not adequately understand. As in the case of the touring Chinese master mentioned above, change may indicate a lacking of fundamental skill and an inadequate grasp of the fundamentals. And this teacher will presumably pass these flaws to the credulous souls who offer him their admiration.

A complicating factor is the development of a competitive performance environment in which lowness of stance and gymnastic ability are awarded extra marks by judges. When I was a judge I was actually instructed to do so; it was part of the tournament standard for the style in question, and I saw many competitors who were working in extremely low stances but whose torsos were frozen and utterly incapable of transmitting internal power.

So lineage, reputation and competitive skill cannot be depended upon, and neither can any idea of stylistic purity. Everything changes.

I believe, in the final analysis, that true advancement in skill can only come from a deepening understanding of the fundamentals which underlie form and technique. Further, these must be questioned and re-evaluated and revisited over a period of decades of practice. It is a process that can only end with death.

The advancement of skill and learning are the way, not the destination.

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