INB #04: Those Advanced Sets, especially Weapons

A12There are a lot of fun forms I can hardly wait to teach. Among these are the Phoenix Flying Straight Swords, the Horse Knife, the Steel Whip, the 3-Sectional Staff vs. Spear and the ever-popular Crescent Knives. But it will be a while. I definitely have students – mostly young men – who think I’m holding back. And in a way I am. And in another way, I’m not.

The problem with so-called advanced sets it that there are a number of mixed reasons why they’re in the “advanced” category. It’s true that they often require special skills. But it’s also true that often these forms aren’t very important. Some advanced sets – especially hand sets – are advanced because of their length and content: they incorporate a large variety of advanced skills. Some sets exist because of special student attributes such as body type, flexibility and even ingenuity. There are sets, for example, really only appropriate to tall people. Some sets are just plain clean up, fulfilling some classical criterion such as “18 weapons”.

Personally, I’m not bad at the steel whip. But in truth it’s about 1/100th as useful as the spear for Kung Fu training. And under certain conditions little can be learned that is really useful. This is commonly seen in “Contemporary WuShu” where these weapons have been retooled to be almost caricatures of themselves: tinfoil Kuan knives and string-thick whips. True, an advanced weapon like the tiger hooks can actually add some real knowledge to a practitioner’s repertoire. But, most people are attracted more to the image and idea of exotic weapons than to their mechanics. That’s fine. That’s fun. That’s why you wait until the student has a firm foundation before letting her play.

Don’t think I haven’t been subject to form lust myself. I spent a very long time tracking down things like the original Tiger/Crane, steel whip and elk horn knives. The problem for me, and for most students who fixate on the more exotic forms, is the flat quality of the forms they already know. They often gravitate to newer, most unusual forms because they haven’t really explored nuances of better known sets. My intermediate students are often disappointed when they ask for specialized exercises and I keep pointing them back to Tan Tui. It’s not that I lack the exercises: I’ve got literally hundreds of them. It’s that I want them to see each form like a reference book, or a tool: not just a rung to climb over. In the old days, when people said, “I’ve studied Tan Tui for 2 years,” they meant with variations, substitutions, usage, exercises and all the things that accompanied a proper study. It’s like this: if you know your staff set really well, you already have been trained in double darts, double daggers, butterfly knives and double broadswords. If your basics stink, your steel whip will only get applause from the uninitiated and your relatives (the members audience at most tournaments).

As far as advanced sets, what students don’t understand is that as they approach the creativity of a martial “artist”; so does the instructor. When the student’s good enough for advanced sets they should no longer need step-by-step instructions because the sets are often very flexible in format. At the same time I, as an instructor, no longer feel ethically bound to teach a set to a student because he wants it. Remember, by this time I’ve already spent years teaching the student basics to a degree where he or she is solid enough to master an advanced set. I’ve performed my duty. What they learn next should be educational, creative and interesting to both of us. And by this time we should be specializing along the student’s actual bent.

Throughout your career you will only rarely – unless you force the issue – teach high level information. Every instructor wants students are this level. But the student should realize that by this time compensation if not the question. This king of transmission is a labor of love.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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