The traditional Chinese martial arts are wonderful. They are an irreplaceable part of Chinese cultural heritage. Their teachings encapsulate the the wisdom of thousands of years. They create a flexible, strong mind and body. Practicing these arts is a way to give yourself the gift of physical and mental well being.
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But, here in the United States, it is rare to drive ten minutes in the city without seeing a yoga studio or a karate dojo. Traditional Chinese martial arts schools are few and far between. If the traditional Chinese martial arts are so wonderful, why aren’t they more widespread?
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The traditional Chinese martial arts have qualities that stand in the way of their popularity. Here are some of them:
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An art form survives only if it is in demand. What was in demand in old China? The things that were necessary for survival. So what did people need to survive back then? They needed to stay healthy and to be able to protect themselves. The traditional Chinese martial arts developed out of those needs. Martial arts caught on, which is why we still have them today. However, skills that were needed across the ocean centuries ago are not essential to survival in modern Western culture. People who may have originally turned to traditional martial arts training now turn to faster, easier methods, like pharmacies, hospitals, fitness centers, or guns.
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Traditional martial arts’ are still trying to gain a foothold in the west. This a challenge that most traditional martial arts teachers face. Many teachers only have a few dozen students. On the limited income a small school provides, they can not afford to teach full time. A few supplement their income by filming DVDs or writing books, (requiring business knowledge that most traditionally trained martial artists have not had the opportunity to acquire). Most have a day job that supports their teaching. When the teacher can not devote themselves full time to teaching and their own personal practice, it limits their improvement. This, in turn limits the number of their students they can attract. The cycle continues.
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Traditional Chinese martial arts also do not cater to children. In old China, masters did not teach children until they were over the age of 12. Typically, teaching little children was left to senior disciples. This limited the art in two ways. First, since the disciple’s knowledge base and teaching skill was limited, children would leave the practice before gaining any real skill. Second, the master was not in contact with the youngest students. As a result, the master did not develop his art with children’s practice in mind. So, traditional Chinese martial arts training lacks elements that attract the youngest students. For example, traditional Chinese martial arts often do not use a belt system like Japanese arts do, which makes them less appealing to young children in the West who are used to positive reinforcement and a systematic curriculum.
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The film industry and the Chinese sports academies have also caused difficulties for the traditional Chinese martial arts.
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Although kung-fu movies have brought martial arts into the spotlight, they also spread a very romanticized version of the arts. I enjoy kung-fu movies, as do most of my students. But, they do not give a realistic representation of martial arts training. In the movies, the young disciple meets a master and begins training, and we fast-forward through years of hard work. Before your two hour movie is over the disciple can fly over rooftops and defeat enemies. However, in real life, there is no fast-forward. And lots and lots of bitter has to be eaten before you get to the sweet. Students who cling to the film-industry’s romanticized ideal of martial arts often give up when they realize the amount of work involved in real martial training.
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The traditional Chinese martial arts are useful, but they are not flashy. But, they lack the fancy flips and kicks that attract an audience for performance art. So, the Chinese sports academies have split the traditional martial arts into two very different directions. First, there is sanda, the sport-fighting side of the martial arts. Then there is wushu, the beautiful, flashy, performance side. In modern China, people are pushing wushu for acceptance as an Olympic sport, and sports academies offer wushu students gymnastic classes instead of training in traditional forms. However, neither sanda nor wushu accurately represent the whole of the traditional Chinese martial arts.
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The diversity of the Chinese arts is one of its strengths. Because each master had their own ideas, there are many unique styles and lineages. Students can compare the different styles, and choose what the like best. They can spar together to discover their own strengths and weaknesses. However, this diversity also causes challenges. Because there are many small styles, instead of one or two large styles, it is difficult for students to continue their training when they move to a new city. Yoga studios typically host classes by teachers of different styles, and students can choose the style they like best. However, martial arts teachers are fewer in number, and most martial arts schools specialize in one style. Chances are, if you move for work of school, you will not be able to find a teacher of your style. Several of my students are facing this difficulty right now.
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Many things limit the spread of traditional Chinese martial arts. But, should we change? How many of these “faults” are actually strengths? What direction should that Chinese martial arts take?
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What do you think?