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Settling Things Chinese Style

October 21, 2016

A friend of mine (let’s call him A) used to be involved with the Chinese martial arts tournaments in Singapore, both as a spectator and participant. One day, during a break in a tournament, he was commenting privately to his friend that the students of another teacher did not possess 六合劲 (Six Harmonies Force). By the standards of Chinese martial arts, Six Harmonies Force is supposed to be the hallmark of proper martial arts skill, especially for the internal schools. And since those students from the other teacher were supposed to be practicing an internal martial art, that was as good as saying they were clueless and poorly taught.

It just happened, however, that A’s comments were overheard by other students of the same teacher (they were catching a smoke nearby at the parking lot, if I remember the story correctly). They reported the matter to their teacher, who pretty much went ballistic over the insult and confronted A’s teacher. A’s teacher at that time had phenomenal levels of 功力 (martial power). For those of us unfamiliar with that concept, 功力 is not just plain old vanilla muscular strength. It speaks of a fighter’s ability to generate and deliver force to the opponent, to shed off or nullify strikes from the opponent, to retain balance even when grappled and resistance to joint locks and such.

(By the way, 功力 is a concept that many Bujinkan practitioners are not familiar with. I’ve seen high dan grades switch over to other martial arts when they encountered practitioners with real 功力, because those people just totally bowled them over. Our locks don’t work, their strikes are much more powerful than they are supposed to be and they usually laugh at us when we try to throw them. One thing you need to understand though: 功力 allows a person to do things “wrong” and still get results. You can study under people with high levels of 功力, but if they do not bring you through their journey of cultivating it you can end up practicing flawed technique without the necessary power to back it up… )

The other teacher was no slouch either – he came from a rough province in China and had the brawling experience (and scars) that came with it. What do you think happened next – a death match between two teachers? A duel between my friend A and the other teacher’s top student, to see who had the true understanding of 六合劲? A low-key but persistent feud between the students of the two schools, with hostile glares during tournaments and brawls in the streets?

No. The meeting between the two teachers was made up of A’s teacher listening to the other teacher rant about A’s rudeness while A’s teacher kept offering Chinese tea to him as a sign of apology. What were you expecting, the duels and drama you see in Hong Kong Kung-fu movies???

Martial Arts in Community

The incident I described was not an exception to how disputes were settled in China during the old days. Very seldom will disagreements between teachers lead to all out fights between the teachers, duels between the students or brawling in the streets. If you stop and think about it, it totally makes sense. Teachers don’t want to die or be crippled battling another teacher. They don’t want their students dying or getting crippled battling students from another school (that means the teachers themselves have less paying customers). And the community frowns on feuds between schools leading to brawls on the streets, because that depletes the community’s limited supply of young, able-bodied men. In case we have forgotten, even within the last one hundred years communities still needed able-bodied young men for farming and for defending the community from bandits, marauders and foreign invaders. World War II is still firmly in the Chinese collective memory…

Sometimes of course things go haywire. A newcomer sometimes arrives out of nowhere and starts challenging the teachers in the town, in a desperate bid to establish himself as a teacher. We call it 踢场, the Chinese equivalent of 道場荒らし(challenge matches between dojos). When that happens, the teachers would send someone of about the same rank and status to deal with the upstart (like the newly arrived Wong Jack Man sent to face off Bruce Lee back in San Francisco).

Even if the upstart wins, the community will usually turn upon him. The upstart is an unpredictable element, while the established teachers in town have already shown themselves a part of the community, so to speak. So the town will just ignore that new “teacher” and leave him alone. Think about it, how long can a martial arts school survive if all the people in that town boycott that school and send their kids to the other teachers instead?

But normally the furthest things will go will be a match between the two top students of opposing schools. And that was it. We Chinese are by nature an orderly people, and the difficulty of day-to-day survival over the past one hundred years (famine, battles between warlord factions, the Japanese invasion and all that) and made it such that we would seek cooperation rather than conflict, for the sake of the community. And this shows even in how martial arts schools relate with each other within the Chinese communities around the world.

Is it the best way of doing things? I’m ethnically Chinese, I am too involved with this culture to be able to judge it without bias. But I can talk about it, and explain some of the thinking behind it, so that people from different cultures can actually understand why we do what we do, and so that you can sort of sense if some non-Chinese teaching a kung-fu class is telling you BS about how things were done back in China.


Junjie 俊傑
Bujinkan Ninjutsu



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