― Friedrich Nietzsche
I have been involved in learning, researching and teaching the Chinese internal martial arts of Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan, Tibetan Buddhist Meditation, Zen and Tao philosophy for well over 50+ years. So as the commercial says, “I know a thing or two because I have seen a thing or two!” In this world of social media and instant messaging, YouTube and the like there is so much information out there as to be almost overwhelming. You would think that it would educate those interested with so much “knowledge” floating around in cyberspace. This might be true except that there is also so much false, incomplete and incorrect information intermingled with facts that it can be very confusing to the average student or seeker.
Take for example, when you say Chinese martial arts to an individual, student or teacher each thinks they know what you mean. They are all schools of self-defense right. Well, not really. Today within the Chinese martial arts there are many schools of thought on how to practice and train. Knowing how to achieve what you want from an art is like wanting to cross a great river, there are many things to learn before you get to the other side. The best way is to build your own bridge of knowledge based on sound proven methods and science. Originally martial arts were just what the name meant original military skills (Dudao Daiwu). Today almost all the categories for defense or health are lumped under the term military art (Wushu).
Training had a primary focus, fighting or defending yourself and surviving a conflict using, fists, feet or weapons. Ancient wushu training was not designed to develop spiritual awareness, longevity or health. Wushu in its purest original form was for developing combat ability nothing more or less. There were no divisions of these arts they all were designed for use in combat against a deadly adversary.
Today Chinese martial arts have been fractured and divided into two main rivers. One course is called Internal and the other External. Both divisions also have further divided into schools that focus on, sport, health or self-defense. One would think that because these methods are all named Chinese martial arts that any one you choose can teach you how to defend yourself along with providing other benefits to health and longevity, unfortunately this is not the case.
Within the Chinese martial arts world of today, I see that there are four categories for schools and instructors. It is possible for some overlapping to occur within these groupings, but it is very rare to find a school or teacher who can deliver all of them in one program. These divisions are:
1. Health focus school: Here we find a majority of taijiquan and other internal art schools whose primary focus is in teaching these styles as moving meditations or yoga-like dance. Few if any of these schools teach any martial art skills. For example, a school that proclaimed to be teaching Taijiquan but was only health oriented is not teaching the boxing (quan) so the school is really teaching Grand ultimate dance (Taiji-Wudao) not grand ultimate boxing (Taijiquan).
2. Sport focus school: This category will specialize in teaching physical fitness and competition. Competition training can consist of forms training for aesthetic display much like gymnastics and or sparring to be used in the tournament ring where the combat is controlled. These schools use the term Wushu but should be classified as contemporary martial art schools (Xiandai wushu) with an emphasis on winning trophies not surviving in a street altercation.
3. Traditional focus school: Better know as original emphasis military arts Wushubenyi) These schools emphasize preserving ancient traditions and skills of the original style so far as it is understood by modern teachers. Training will vary based on the style and if the school is classified as Internal or External. Students will be introduced to the arts historical background, perhaps some philosophical studies, possibly meditation techniques, forms or principle-based exercise, breathing exercises, studies of human vulnerable points, martial applications including two person exercises and possibly sparring and or drilled to develop self-defense skills. There may also be an emphasis on developing extraordinary physical powers through specialty exercises know as breath skill (Qigong) although the early schools of Wushu Benyi being more practical oriented did not incorporate much in the way of mystical exercises.
4. Reality focus school: This is the rarest of all Chinese martial art schools. Here value is placed on practical street combat for personal survival and tactical training so a student can handle realistic combative situations in today’s world. This type of school has little interest in sport, traditional methods, Qigong or spiritual training; classes are geared toward people whose only interest is stripped down method of practical combat.
In my experience, the general public and even many martial arts students are unaware of these divisions and often think that almost any martial art school will provide any or all of the above along with a dose of Zen-like spirituality thrown in for good measure. In reality, it takes a great deal of time out of our busy lives to develop even passably competent skills in even one these categories, so training in all of them is not realistic or practical.
Each category has special ways of focusing practice to achieve its specific goals. If you know your goal you can start to make an informed decision to plan your path. Ask yourself what it is you really want and be aware that no one art will give you all of these:
Do you want to develop spirituality and longevity?
Do you want good health and freedom from illness?
Do you want to enter tournaments and win prizes for your forms?
Do you want to be able to defend yourself if attacked?
Do you want to become a professional Warrior perhaps with a career in law enforcement, personal protective services etc.?
Your decisions should influence your choice of a teacher and school of training. Be wary of anyone who claims to teach all four divisions. Today most modern martial art schools fall into the first two categories. These teachers are often highly skilled in their focus area, but no matter how you want to believe otherwise they really cannot teach you practical self-defense skills if they themselves do not possess practical self-defense knowledge and experience.