The Wandering Sage

In this periodic column, martial arts enthusiast and old China hand Shannon Roxborough explores the claims depicted in kung-fu cinema, putting them into historical, cultural, philosophical, martial and common-sense context.

Chien Fu (Jackie Chan) undergoing harsh kung-fu training under Master Pai Cheng-Tien (Yuen Siu-Tien) in the 1978 film, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.”
Chien Fu (Jackie Chan) undergoing harsh kung-fu training under Master Pai Cheng-Tien (Yuen Siu-Tien) in the popular 1978 film, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.”

Like many who watched kung-fu movies in the good ol’ days, I sat glued to my TV screen, entranced by a common theme: a dedicated student training under a seasoned master to learn a age-old skill that has been dutifully passed down through the generations.

As depicted in some of our favorite flicks from the 1970s and ’80s, there was a time when martial arts studies were formal affairs in which disciples would undergo lengthy and rigorous apprenticeships under masters with decades of experience. Martial arts practice wasn’t simply a hobby; it was a lifestyle, one that denoted a history of tradition and included multi-faceted studies encompassing history, culture, health, healing and inner growth. It was this approach that I was lucky enough to take when I began studying the arts 30-some odd years ago.

Sadly, things have changed. Mostly gone are the days when a devoted student would sit with his master in the training quizzing him incessantly about techniques, theories and history while taking copious notes to pore over later. The world of martial arts schools, once focused on integrity and excellence in instruction, is now dominated by highly-commercial facilities fixated on maximum enrollments and above all, profits—resulting in a disappointing decline in dedication and quality.

In this age of instant gratification, the barriers between culture and popular culture have blurred, creating a wave of martial trends, from the MMA craze that has swept the nation to rank and titles being passed out as if by a diploma mill to the wholesale Chinese export of Shaolin monks—actually acrobatic sport wushu artists—being passed off as the long-extinct genuine article.

Although this proliferation has exposed more people to the arts, it has diluted them in the process, destroying their integrity, undermining their credibility and depriving their students of much of what made them so special to learn.

As a result, the approach to training like that we love to see in bygone kung-fu cinema has given way to so-called “new and improved” methods more suited to those with shorter attention spans who lack the discipline and work ethic required to study on a deeper level. And an appreciation for traditional martial arts, old-fashioned respect and anything that smacks of humility are now treated as character flaws.

Oh well, at least we have DVDs, video-sharing sites and digital downloads to keep the old-school fires burning.

—Shannon Roxborough

About the Author

Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung-fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former magazine correspondent and popular newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his news shorts have appeared in Inside Kung-fu and Black Belt while his articles have been published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Alternative Medicine (now Natural Solutions magazine) and the defunct New Age Journal, among others. He also wrote a regular column for the now-ceased “The Okinawan” magazine exploring various aspects of Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures—from martial arts and traditional art forms to history, philosophy, etiquette and travel.

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