Interview: Ted Mancuso on “Lineage”
How important is lineage?
A: Incredibly…or not at all. It’s a heritage of research, not artifact. If you are carrying on the work of developing, say, super string theory it helps to copy the equations accurately. But even correct equations are meaningless if you don’t understand them. The scientific analogy just popped into my head but if it happens in science why, for God’s sake, should we expect more from a very ancient art that was designed to resist deciphering.
A: Yes, you have to remember something that you’ve seen in all the old Kung Fu movies; the cliché of the teacher who says, “Don’t ever use this!” It is meant to seem moralistic. Actually there have been times in Chinese history when —should the student kill someone, for example—the teacher would be chained right up next to him. Consequently teachers designed ways to control the student’s progress. People who say the stalling was all about money are being naive. It was much more significant than money. It was to protect the teacher’s rear end, not to mention reputation. Imagine what parents would say to their kids if they knew they would be responsible for each child’s actions. So teachers developed a code: an oblique movement meant it was applied on that angle, all backward steps were really side sets, etc. Quite an interesting code, actually.
Q: Does that mean no one learned correctly?
A: No, but it means lineage is a tricky proposition. Much of it is by association which can be misleading. Its like the joke where one peasant is bragging and says,” I once dined with the Great Khan.” His friends is astonished, “You did? How did it happen?” The braggart says, “My donkey decided to sit down in the middle of a bridge just as the Khan’s entourage was coming. I got down and whipped the beast and pulled him and swore but nothing worked. Just then the Khan rides up and his eyes are red with anger. At that moment my damned beast dumped one right on the road. The Khan looks at me and yells, ‘Eat’!” The peasant nods to himself, “I dined once with the Great Khan.”
I know people who got their foot stepped on by Bruce Lee, that sort of thing. During the Seventies in particular people would run up and get their photo taken. A foreshadowing of Forest Gump?
Q: But that’s not really lineage.
A: No, but when the master’s dead who knows if you really studied, say, Praying Mantis under him for years or spent most of the seminar time in the back of the room and it’s all a lie?
Q: Then what is true lineage?
A: Well first off, it doesn’t have to be as serious as adoption. In fact even the “adopted son” status can be suspicious as a deathbed conversion. And family doesn’t mean much, look at Brandon Lee (who never claimed anything to his credit), the Parker Family, etc. We already know that acting talent is no more guaranteed by succession than nobility—true nobility—is.
Q: How do we sort it all out?
A: First you have to understand that Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) is particularly prone to this. When you have a system so subtle you can call it an “internal” style you can assume you will have internal disputes, too. Chinese style martial artists often stand around comparing teacher and grand teachers. They are as tied to the past as the guy “who once played with Bob Dylan.” If you have a cultural, historical and personal connection it’s different. Then you have a right to wear the tartan with pride and even be mediocre if you wish. But this can also be a great excuse to sit on your genetic duff and not apply yourself to practicing, researching and improving the art.
Q: That’s valid for people who have some investment in a particular style. What about the rest of us?
A: Lineage is important to different degrees on different levels. Let’s talk about what’s not of that much importance. First is that you have “the entire system”. That last little bit of learning is often held back. I have direct experience with this—where the last part of a system became a sort of bargaining chip between teacher and student. I’m not saying this as sour grapes because I’m telling you that the “last secret” which you are suffering to acquire is often just public knowledge in the next village. I’ll never forget that my first Chin Na teacher, Won Baines Hong, was a true master of the 72 Hands and, lacking the last hand, once paid a teacher $150.00 for it, an incredible sum in China before World War II.
Now about discipleship. The more we talk about this the more it all boils down not to discipleship but relationship. Was there actually a relationship between student and teacher? Can you believe it? There are actually discipleships where there is almost no relationship?
Q: How is that possible?
A: Happens all the time. You befriend an old, doddering Sifu in his dusky years, you pay his hospital bills. Then of course you can wait until he’s passed on and give the impression that during that last seminar he took you aside and bestowed something special on you.
Q: Are there any real discipleships?
A: Of course. I attended an official ceremony in Washington D.C. Just a while ago. It was very moving. But of course formal discipleship is not as common now. Most people just claim lineage without referring to depth of relationship. And the nature of relationship has changed. I believe it was Tohei who, with non-comprehension, complained that when he offered to accompany his American students back to Japan to be certificated from his teacher, Ueshiba O-Sensei, they had little interest because, after all, they only really knew and indentified with Tohei himself…
Q: Is it all a game?
A: Not exactly, it’s just dodgy human tendencies. I do have a few juniors in, to pick a simple example, Kenpo who—because they took a couple of private lessons with Parker at a certain moment in his career—were skipped above me in the charts. My favorite, which is a good story, is the excellent Kenpo teacher, Ray Arquilla, who actually sought out and studied with Mitose in Folsom prison. He skipped up four generations with that one and became, in essence, his own great grandmaster: authentically.
Q: Does any of it matter?
A: Absolutely. I remember attending a party of International Bridge people where a distinguished looking Argentinean physician informed me that, “My people tend to be fascists—not Nazis—fascists.” Degree counts. But you have to be canny. I’m disappointed how gullible Westerners really are about this and suspect a tinge of racism in their paternalistic disregard of the details. Plus, they are obsessed with information and not experience unless its their own personal experience. Shared human experiences seem a bit subtle but they are the stuff of lineage. You have to understand the difference between information and content. There’s been more published in the Twentieth Century on martial arts than in all the previous 5000 years. But the information is actually flimsier and it colors the experience. People think they know too much and it filters the experience.
Lineage itself is important, experientially. It means you went to the source, sipped the tea, saw the face, asked the questions. The next thing is: what did you walk away with? Pure is nice. Creative is better. But only by being directly exposed will you know what creative means, how creative to be and how appropriate to your level. You go to a teacher to start as a beginner, let’s say. In that case your lineage is a claim of foundational training and that’s solid if it lasts more than a year or so. Less than that is not lineage: just propinquity. At the middle level you go for exposure to important concepts. A ten year veteran can’t go to a seminar with Ma Hong, learn a set and claim lineage. The transmission is too superficial for his standing. If this middle level practitioner goes to a seminar on just Pi Quan, that’s different. The advanced person should be at the level of the holographic and the instantaneous. Wu Yu Xiang learned Tai Chi from Chen Qing Pin for only some months. Liu Yun Jiao’s original time with Gong Bao Tian was only nine months. No problem. I’ve met people I would happily claim as students with three months training between us—if they come to me with work already accomplished. Right now, at this point in my own career, I’m looking for people who want to learn in depth. I’ve promoted a lot of people in many ways and on many levels in the past but now I’m looking for my legacy holders. It all depends on “fate” as they say.
Q: What about your lineage?
A: It might be instructive to discuss but don’t expect it to be usual. As scattered examples, I got my black belt in Kenpo from the Tracy’s. That’s pretty standard but I was the youngest of their clan to do that. Then let’s see… I am the first student of Tian Shan Pai in the Western World and know a lot about the system but have never claimed lineage because, even though I love Willy Lin, it’s not my style.
I studied for 12 years with Kwong Wing Lam and claim the Northern Shaolin system but only up to the forms. Wing Lam and I are friends but I didn’t go to him to be a disciple. I think he knows that. Then there’s Adam Hsu. I saw Adam for the first time in the Panhandle in San Francisco about a month after he had arrived in the U.S., before he became Instructor of the Year” and famous. Something clicked immediately. But I was determined to finish with Wing Lam first. Though I’ve studied, drunk tea with, published and joked with, I’ve never even claimed lineage from Adam except in Bagua and a few specific sets. But this is a good example. I remember first seeing him in the park and thinking, “That’s the guy.” I think in that ten minutes, ask Debbie and she’ll confirm this, that link was forged. After ten minutes I think I understood where he was coming from better than most of the people who studied with him for years. Certainly more than some who’ve since deserted him.
I’ve been offered all sorts of things which would have greatly enhanced my credentials, leaderships in whole organizations, that sort of thing. But that ten minutes of watching Adam Hsu, or a hallway conversation I had with George Xu or my private audience with the Thunder Style masters, that’s the core of my experience and the proof of my claims.
Q: In this context how does that make your lineage?