art_secrets1In the early days, some of the first students of the Jun Fan club started by Bruce Lee were required to sign non-disclosure statements before they were allowed to study. Stop and consider that for a moment. Imagine a boardroom with your lawyers and, say, Jimmy Lee’s lawyers. You have all been locked in a teeth-clenching silence for long minutes. A guy in an Italian suit from the other side of the table leans forward and says, “You understand that if you broadcast anything about the Wing Hand, we will be forced to pursue you with maximum prejudice.”

The whole scene seems silly now because there are very few things kept secret in the martial arts nowadays. I am always amused when people say there are no secrets. I think, “Sure, now.” But that doesn’t mean that secrets never existed, or never actually mattered. Not at all.

The difference is that the game has changed. Since cold weapons have lost the field to hot ones, the meaning of war and the pursuit of victory have changed. In the old days, things like metallurgy techniques and military maneuvers could be secrets. Weapons were wheeled into the field before panicked combatants who had never seen these before. Special training methods and weapons adaptations could swing victories. art_secrets2An example of this would be the Big Knife Brigade fighting and out-cutting their Japanese enemies in World War 2.

Martial techniques can also be secret. When a young Bruce Lee first came to America he was just so technically advanced over his opponents that many of the legends started that early in his career. While the average black belt was still blocking with a hard outward, he was slipping past their blocks with Wing Chun hand switches.

What about training? If there are no secrets, why do some trainers command higher salaries than others? The issue of martial secrets is determined not by the intention to make this or that information secret, but the nature of cultural information. We know that there are trade secrets, scientific secrets, political secrets, personal secrets; in fact, we live in a world of secrets, misinformation, quantified confusion. Why would there not be a few secrets here and there in a world that did not have television or the internet?

Finally, I will tell you a little secret of my own. Every martial artist who has been studying for a long time has at least a few secrets, a way of making this or that technique zing, a special combination, an insight that makes a move just that much more effective. These secrets might art_secrets3just as well be called tricks. They are not meant to conceal information like so many people think. They are meant to mark information that must be experienced to be  duplicated, information that almost can’t be shown until the student has reached a certain level of skill and knowledge. In fact, some secrets can hardly wait to be known.

9 Responses to “Secrets”

  1. Willis says:

    I have to wonder about the statement that Bruce Lee was so technically advanced over his opponents. I began martial arts in the 60s and was a big fan of Bruce Lee’s, but like many legends his greatness may far excide who and what he actually was. Morihei Ueshiba is raised to god-like status in the Aikido community when the actual development of the art of Aikido was really the work of his son and his ranking students. Bruce Lee had one fight and did a couple of tournament demonstrations. In the 60s I watched my instructor fight people off the street and other instructors almost nightly, many were taken to the hospital.
    But the jist of this writing is secrets in the martial arts. To that I agree. Some instructors may just have a better way of doing something. Others hold back “secrets” attempting to retain students.

  2. Jeff says:

    Well, in Bruce Lee’s defense, he had more than one fight and a couple of tournaments. From what I’ve read, he was challenged continually, especially after he became famous, and would have to fight challengers between scenes of his movies. Maybe that’s just legend, I don’t know. Also, didn’t he originally have to leave Hong Kong because of all the fights?

    Ted, don’t you think that some secrets were secrets because of the nature of power to corrupt? You shouldn’t teach someone a deadly technique before they are mature enough not to use it. I seem to recall that Kanbun Uechi, the founder of Pang Gai Noon Ryu (or Uechi Ryu), made this error, resulting in one of his students killing a peasant, and he refused to teach anyone for about 20 years afterwards. Again, perhaps this is legend, but I recall reading that once upon a time.

  3. Plum Staff says:

    Exactly, Jeff. I can’t think that some of us wince a little when we see someone perform a neck spin on an opponent like it was nothing. This is especially true with young children in the room. Sometimes people are disappointed with our applications VCD because older Chinese instructors refuse to show techniques that beginners might imitate. It might be an old-fashioned attitude but at least someone is in charge…

  4. Plum Staff says:

    What I was alluding to is actually a little bit off the gloss of the legend. Here was a twenty-year old dazzling people because they were still trying to block jabs with hard block and Bruce was breezing around them with Wing Chun technique. It was a matter of social momentum. He had survived a lot of street fight, garnered a least one championship in Western boxing and fought one of the Laceys I believe. But I had a colleague who, during sparring, kicked him in the groin. It is the very fact that we are all human that makes us try to develop secrets in the first place. Trouble is even when you have them they require a lot of hard work and are still slippery at best.

  5. Willis says:

    Dear Plum Staff, I knew that any preceived knock on the “legend” would illicit some commentary. I guess that I am a bit cynical from years of exposure to too much hero worship. Facts do get mixed up with legend, I once upon a time studied with one of the most prolific writers on Bruce Lee and JKD…..he knew next to nothing about either but he was a good writer and did his best to expand the legend. Bruce Lee did great things for the martial arts, but I saw Tai Chi, Goju-Ryu and Jujitsu people doing soft blocks for years before he came along; many instructors on the East coast already were combining Judo, Karate and Boxing. They just didn’t differentiate it into a system. It was use whatever works in a fight. Bruce Lee was able to bring it to the attention of the martial arts world in a way that seemed different and exciting. Was it a good thing? Some thing it was others are not so sure.
    By the way I would be curious to know what legitamte Western Boxing Championship he won?
    As Jung stated we all need myths, they serve a purpose. Maybe the martial arts need secrets. I am still wanting to learn the secret of the glowing fingers from the film Five Fingers of Death.

  6. Plum Staff says:

    Not to mention catching a Japanese sword between your palms.

  7. charlie says:

    NO DOUBT about it, Bruce Lee was a great fighter because he trained so furiously and time put in. There were other great Chinese martial artist on the mainland just as well, some never to be heard of, only training in the solitude of their basement.

    I know my Shirfu lacks the time to teach often,but will gladly show you any application or technique or mind body theory when asked. Time and teacher is the key here and few of us have that anymore. There are no secrets,just lack of time to transmit.

  8. Bob Strauss says:

    I once was talking to one of the top senseis in Wado karate, Tatso Suzuki and the conversation got around to secrets and he said that the secrets in karate were simply what he wouldn’t tell. The great thing is that other teachers also have secrets but they may not be the same ones.
    Bob Strauss

  9. Gordon Cooper says:

    My experience is similar to that of Senior Egami–when he spoke to older Okinawan instructors they told him that there were secrets, but they had to be learned, and could not be taught. To a grappler, a philtrum strike is a secret technique if it is outside of the martial arts paradigm the student knows. I think that the major limitation is lifespan–one can’t manifest every single possible theory fluently because there isn’t enough time. Study, practice, apply, and hopefully find the gold that isn’t ordinary along the Way.

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