Learning Chinese Culture

One fact that is not often brought up in martial arts circles is that many traditional people from the martial art country of origin believe that western people cannot truly learn the martial arts from their country because they do not understand their culture.  It is believed by them particularly because western people were not raised in that culture.  The practitioners of Chinese martial arts believe that their arts are too interwoven with their culture to be expressed properly or in the same way.

Regardless of this belief, our Grandmaster Leung Ting has traveled the world and has possibly taught more people WingTsun™ kung fu outside his native country than in it!  This is not because he argues with this attitude.  He has stated in some of his numerous books than he wishes to teach others about his culture.  Many Chinese people are justly proud of their country, its language, its people and their past.

It does in fact become rather difficult and even awkward to explain the WingTsun™ kung fu system without including its history, for example.  Would WingTsun have the same impact here in America if a teacher did not give some context as to why WingTsun is so effective?  When explained in the context of the circumstances of its ancestors, the power of the knowledge becomes clearer.

Martial arts such as WingTsun have become organized in order to preserve them.  The techniques have often been a part of a family or a village’s vital defense system. The skills and knowledge were necessary for survival.  The development of WingTsun tells the story of a people.  The depth of the development of WingTsun makes it clear that it was not merely a village sport.  The story of its secrecy reveals that it was a “secret weapon,” kept from others to insure their survival against attack by skilled fighters from other provinces, monasteries, villages or families, all of whom had their own fighting methods.  There was no such thing as police protection and often no local military protection.  A family had to fend for itself.  Weapons such as poles, knives, swords or improvised farm implements were among the methods of defense.  Occasionally groups of interested persons formed secret societies or hid in monasteries.

Learning the protocols of seniority, terms of addressing elders and others in the family and the simple acts of courtesy of the culture reveals how the people of that time period kept families from breaking apart and turning on each other.  Elders were given great deference because they held the knowledge of the past and the judgment gained from bad and good experiences.  They were expected to pass the experiences on that could not be fully conveyed in writings to the young so that future generations could benefit.

The names of the techniques reveal how the Chinese people thought and viewed the techniques of self-protection.  In fact, some families gave artful names to each technique.  This could have been a way to remember everything as it was passed down without having to record it in writing, thus risking family secrets from falling into the wrong hands.  In addition, the names were pretty and often hid a lethal function.  For the most part, the names of the techniques in WingTsun were strictly functional and plainly descriptive.  For example, double tan-sau expresses a two-handed position meaning double palm-up hand but double tok-sau, which forms a tan-sau hand position (lifting arm-hand) expresses an action.  A still photo can show a double tan-sau but a still photo of the double tan sau does not show the tok-sau (the action).  The name for the main WingTsun punching method is a bit more interesting: the character sun thrusting punch (Yat Chi Chung Kuen).  There is no way for a western person to know how a punch got a name like that without some knowledge of Chinese culture.  If you are on the receiving end of the punch, you MIGHT see the resemblance between the punch coming at you and the Chinese character for the word “Sun,” but not likely.  The punch is aimed right down the geographical center of an attacker’s head and body, “between the eyes,” so to speak!

It is therefore true that a person learning a martial art from another culture would understand and perhaps learn it better by understanding the culture that developed it.  More than likely, a person actually born and raised in that culture would understand the importance of learning it from emulating one’s elder’s determined nature, skills, self-confidence, and enthusiasm for life that comes from developing a highly regarded skill – self-protection.  After all, humans are the only creature that has no built in defenses such as claws or sharp teeth.  Without such skills, there seems to be something missing.