The Power of the Written Word
For the preservation of knowledge nothing compares with the written word. Yet
few who study martial arts take the fullest advantage of this precious tool
to enhance their knowledge and comprehension. The written word is
one of the martial artist's most powerful tools for learning. It
can link you to vital knowledge that could make a major
difference in your understanding of your chosen art.
The new "scientific school" of the 19th century insists that no
history is possible without written sources, documents, or
inscriptions, and that a sharp line divides prehistory and history.
Only through the written word can a society be considered to have a
Although the very beginnings of writing date back about 30,000
years, formal writing dates back only about 5,000 years. Even if we
go back 1000 years, or even 500 years, martial arts methods
were seldom written down. In the early years
of the martial arts, knowledge was passed directly from teacher to
student. Formalized methods of writing were not used; instead
only the hands-on methods of seeing and listening to the
teacher were used. To remember all that was taught,
a student had to commit to memory various formulas, songs or
annotations that encompassed the secrets of that art.
There are a few reasons why writing was not used to document
styles of martial arts. In early China many of the masters were, in
fact, illiterate. The masters who
were literate felt it was better not to write down the secrets of their
chosen style in order to protect its secrecy. Another factor that
limited documentation was that for a period in Chinese history
the practice of martial arts was forbidden, which caused many
masters to go underground to hide the existence of their art.
By the same token, there were times in China's history when the
martial arts were revered and supported by those in power, and by
the general public as well. At the height of its popularity it
was natural to spread knowledge of martial arts by writing and
demonstrations. It was at these times that some noted masters began to
document their style through the written word.
One such master was the noted Chen Wei-Ming who was
instructed by his teacher Yang Cheng-fu to write about the Tai Chi
Ch'uan system which Yang Cheng-fu promoted. Without these
writings, our knowledge today of what Yang
Cheng-fu propagated would be very inexact.
Another great contributor was Wang Tsung-yueh who wrote Tai Chi Ch'uan Lun.
It is said that this writing attributed the names to each of the Tai Chi
postures. Yet another noted master, Marshal Yueh Fei wrote about
his understanding of Hsing-I ch'uan. Without his writings, the
significance and meaning of Hsing-I might have been lost in
Then there is the book on the Eight Diagram Palm written by
Jiang Rong Qiao, preserving the essence of a style of PaKua. Li Zi
Ming, in his book called Liang Zhen Pu Eight Diagram
Palm, preserved the concepts of the noted PaKua master Dong Hai Chuan.
These and many more too numerous to mention are
the ones we should thank for saving the essence of our arts.
As a teacher and owner of a high-level Kwoon I am responsible for
the purchasing of martial arts materials such as uniforms,
weapons, and of course books and videos. All too often it is hard to
convince the students to purchase a good history book on the
development of their arts. Our Kwoon has spent thousands of
dollars on video equipment to record our own particular style for
the benefits of the students. However, only those who have the
deep desire to learn obtain the materials.
My teacher Ch'ang Tung Sheng would often say, "If you want to
find out who really cares and who does not, charge a dollar for it."
When something is free, everybody is interested. When it is not,
there is great mental deliberation before the student decides to
purchase it. But money is not the only factor. There is something
called true interest. This is what drives the pure practitioner to go
to any extreme to find the answers to all the many mysteries of
his/her chosen art.
When my master was alive, I would hang on his every word. But
even he did not elaborate on his teachings. He would simply tell me
to investigate his philosophy. A student who only follows a teacher
like a martial arts zombie will rarely progress in true
There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who do and
the ones who don't. The ones who do like to read and research.
These individuals are likely to have a massive amount of books,
video tapes, and magazines to help them along with their training.
The ones who don't are less likely to have more than one or
two books on their bookshelf. This type of practitioner seldom
takes the time to read and investigate the source of his chosen
In my experience as a teacher I have noticed a
major difference between these categories of students. The ones
who read, investigate and ponder tend to have a deeper and more
profound understanding of their art, which stays with them for life.
The ones that don't research the written word usually have a
superficial understanding of their art and soon drop away from
It is the student's desire to learn that makes the difference, as well as the
student's eagerness to find the correlation between mind, body and
spirit. This vital information cannot be found just by
physically practicing the arts; it must come from intellectual
I have seen progressive styles such as Jeet-Kune-Do, Bruce Lee's
famous style, appear on the martial arts scene. Its
development came from Bruce Lee's own investigation into all arts,
through reading and pondering what was best for him. As a matter of fact
Lee never really wanted to tag his art with a name. He reasoned
that Jeet Kune Do was not a style as such, but rather a concept he
derived from study and investigation of many art forms.
Lee's library was indeed large and complete. He was
well aware that only by researching the written word and
experimentation can answers be found.
The high quality publications we have at our disposal today are
the greatest tools for examining and preserving our art
forms. These publications go to great extremes to interview
masters with direct lineages to China and Taiwan on the details of
More than ever before new translations of old martial arts books
are being made available to Americans. In the past few years some
wonderful translations of rare Chinese and Japanese writings
have come to the surface.
Reading these translations can often transform a
practitioner's viewpoint about the art he/she is studying or is intending
One's reservoir of knowledge can only increase with study of the
written word. Of course books can't teach. One still needs a teacher.
However, through reading one can make well-informed
decisions about what one wants to achieve.
Knowing your direction in the martial arts is half the battle.
In ancient times a student had to search far and wide to find
good teachers. There were no books that could tell an inquiring
student who the teachers were, what they taught, or
what the philosophy was of any given art.
Today, this is not the case. Books and magazines keep us up
to date on what is happening in the vast world of martial arts.
Great masters are now coming out of China or Japan with one goal
in mind: to preserve their chosen art form by spreading
it to those who care to learn. Books, tapes, and articles are
being produced and written by these prestigious masters to insure
their art form is preserved in history. This new drive by the masters
is a golden chance for the novice, as well as the experienced martial artist to
research these art forms and to learn, and become informed and enlightened.
This new age of publications and videos offers today's martial
artists opportunities not available even twenty years ago. A book can be
a precious find if it can clarify a misunderstanding a student
may have had concerning his/her chosen style. New found
knowledge can propel a student years ahead in training when the
cloud of doubt and misunderstanding is lifted by the written word.
Nothing can hold a student back from progress more than some
obscure principle hidden from the mind. When the mind
understands principles and goals, progress comes quickly.
In the past I have read articles or books that, at first, seemed
worthless. Then one sentence would appear that might cause me to think
about some fact I may have overlooked -- it is then that the mental
interrogation begins. One new thought can change your entire
approach in training. This has always been the way I have
progressed in training, and how I have approached my art.
Of course, there is garbage out there. Of course, there are
phonies out there. Of course, there are useless styles and much
misinformation. But how are you to recognize these differences
unless you research the written word? By this research your art will
take on a new meaning. The questions you have now will be
answered in great detail and your understanding will increase. All this
can be yours simply by research. Then you will be able to
distinguish between fool's gold and the real thing.
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