Saturday, 29 May 2010

The teacher's teacher

For the past two weeks, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei has been in the UK conducting seminars for a wide range of abilities. The class I attended was the advanced Laojia Yilu. In the picture opposite, he is demonstrating wrist locks to an eager group of students. Special thanks to Master Liming Yue for bringing Chen Zhenglei to our shores once more.

This time Chen Juan (CZL's eldest daughter) ably assisted in the classes and provided additional tuition and support to the students. It is good to see the Chen lineage coming through strongly in this excellent, spirited Tai Chi player.

While training is of paramount importance to me, these classes are also a great opportunity to catch up on old friends and make new contacts. After the first day, it was clear that the large majority (if not all) of the students in Master Chen's class were Tai Chi teachers in their own right.

This made me think about where do teachers go to continue learning about their art? It is important to keep your skills relevant and improving, so how do you know that you are learning with the correct teacher?

Many traditional martial arts place great importance on lineage. Lineage is the way you connect yourself to the inventor of your art and their direct inheritors. For example, my lineage is that I was taught by Master Liming Yue, who was in turn taught by Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei and up through the Chen Family history to Chen Wang Ting who invented Tai Chi. Your measurement of success is how few the degrees of separation between yourself and direct lineage (in this case, the Chen family). While lineage is one way of assessing a teacher's knowledge, it is not always a guarantee of quality.

There are other ways of proving worth. One way is through competitions. You can perform your movements and have them judged by a panel of officials. This kind of marking is subject to interpretation, and external appearance is no guarantee of martial skill. Cage fighting and Mixed Martial Arts tournaments are becoming more and more popular as a way of proving self defence skills. Other martial arts have simulated combat competitions (Judo, Tae Kwondo, Tai Chi push hands etc.) But many of the most effective traditional martial arts techniques are banned in modern tournaments. So while tournaments are a good barometer for isolated requirements, they are not necessarily a guarantee of a teacher's fighting skill. Also, they are not a guarantee that the teacher can teach. There have been many naturally gifted fighters who have surrounded themselves with students who have learned very little.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself after attending a martial arts class for the first time:
  1. Did the lessons make sense?
  2. Were things demonstrated slowly and clearly?
  3. Are you happy with what you have learned?
  4. Was your health and safety considered?
  5. Did your skill and understanding of the martial art improve (or did you just learn how good at martial arts your teacher is)?
If you can answer yes to all these questions, you are in a good class. Finally, have a good look around at other students. How good are the more experienced students? This is a guide to your future.

At the end of the day, it is about trust. Who do you trust to correct your technique? I personally know I have made the right decision to learn from Master Liming Yue and Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. The content of their classes is outstanding, they give clear instructions, they have everyone's safety in mind, and taking a look around their classes - I see so many other teachers there, so I know I have made the right decision.


Chris Bennett said...

Yes, trust is perhaps the most important criteria when choosing to learn a martial art. Without it there is little chance of real learning or improvement.

Restita, Seattle Wushu Center said...

I'm looking forward to Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei returning to the USA for his seminar tour. My teacher continues to train with GM Chen, and she stresses the importance of "Even the teachers have teachers".