Master Something

wang ziping

Click pic for a bio of Wang Ziping

“Mastery” can be a tricky concept. People toss it around refering to life-long dedication, such as Wang ZiPing’s Kungfu, or some scam of self-certification.There’s a world of difference between the title “Master” and the reality. About the title we’ll talk in a second. About real mastery let’s talk now. I got my Black Belt in Kenpo in 1968. That was a type of completion, a sense of accomplishment. But that’s not the only way to master something in the martial arts.

Indeed there’s a great deal of confusion about this, not to mention just plain misinformation. Of course attaining a Black Belt is one form of mastery – if it’s authentic. Other people try to attain mastery by an eclectic assembling of skills, a little grappling, a little boxing, a smidge of this, a smattering of that.

Then there are the ones who try to attain mastery of everything. Multiple black belts, lists of degrees.

It’s really not that complicated.

When I began my lifelong study of Kung Fu I began reading all the translated import magazines from China I could get my hands on. I noticed one thing over and over that surprised me. People would list their accomplishments in the martial arts by the forms they had studied under their teachers. This person would be said to have studied Continuous Fist, Twenty Four Beats and Lost Track Road One. This seemed a little chintzy to me who already had learned over twenty forms just to get my Black Belt.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood.

You see, in Chinese martial arts each form was originally an entire course. In other words you tried to master that form to a high level before going on to the next. You hadn’t just memorized Continuous Fist (Lien Bu Ch’uan), you had explored it. In fact, most Kung Fu systems through the centuries only averaged about three hand forms and a few weapons forms.

So what was mastery ? Slowly I realized that mastery came from immersion, from the moves becoming a kind of alternate set of habits. Where others might claim three black belts the true Chinese stylist might have one form. It was a different idea entirely. This didn’t mean, as so many do, that one could win competitions with the forms or that he looked just like the teacher. It meant that the form had been practiced so much it belonged to the student, with his special and individual characteristics.

Kind of interesting because Bruce Lee’s old conflict between forms and practical martial arts disappears in a puff of smoke.

As Kung Fu lost much of its guts the average practitioner learned more and more forms. They weren’t time wasters exactly. As the mechanics and special attributes of the styles started to evaporate people supplied more forms to assure that everything wasn’t lost. Sort of like having to eat more to get the same vitamins.

But real mastery is something different. Take it from someone who’s wasted many years learning over 300 forms. Practice until the thing becomes your own, until you’ve mastered it, then keep it to yourself.

Oh, and what about all this signifying going on lately with the title “Master”. A couple of stories. I have a friend in the martial arts who shut down an entire tournament once because he got into an argument. He got tired of a his opponent – another black man – calling his teacher “master” every few seconds. He contended that it was inappropriate for black people to use the word any more. An interesting point of view that just about started a riot right there.

And my own original grand-teacher, Edmund Parker, a devout Mormon, chose to avoid the word Master in his system because as his religion dictated “there was only one master, Christ”.

It’s not for me to comment on the working of other men’s consciences but I’ll remind you of a martial saying, “In China you don’t call yourself master because then you have to practice alone.”

The title and the reality, let’s not get confused.


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