It is sometimes the habit of martial artists to attend a seminar and then claim the seminar instructor as their teacher, as if they’d studied with them for years. This is definitely not the traditional way to learn martial arts.
Ultimately, the person who suffers the most is the person who attended the seminar and mistakenly believes he has learned enough to call himself a student of the seminar instructor.
How do you determine a martial artist’s actual teacher?
Here is one traditional Chinese method. I was searching for a Choy Li Fut teacher in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. During the course of my search, after going to several Choy Li Fut schools and speaking with high-ranking masters, I found Hu Yuen-Chou. I begged him to accept me as his disciple. He accepted and we went through an official discipleship ceremony, complete with a banquet to allow other tai chi and Choy Li Fut senior masters to witness the event. My extra bonus, since my interest in tai chi was as strong as my desire to further my Choy Li Fut education, was that grandmaster Hu was also a Yang Tai Chi expert, who studied with the great Yang Cheng-Fu.
When I trained in Hong Kong, since I learned from a teacher at a non-commercial school, there was no set tuition fee. Besides paying for my airplane ticket and practicing hard I took my teacher out and paid for all his meals. I bought him presents and spent money to keep him happy as a gesture of my respect and honor to be his student.
Financially he was doing well, so sooner or later I ran out of presents to give him. I didn’t know how to make him feel happy and when I mentioned money for tuition he was offended. He considered tuition too much like a buying-and-selling deal.
Finally, after much thought, I figured out a way to please him and ensure that I continued to learn high-level techniques and forms. I presented him with a red envelope, containing as much money as I could afford to let him know that my intentions were honorable. Most of the time I gave him the red envelope at the end of training sessions. Traditionally, the recipient never opens a red envelope in front of anyone. He took it home and saw the large amount of money inside. That way he knew I valued his training and was sincere about learning.
Besides studying with grandmaster Hu, he sent me to Wong Gong and other senior Choy Li Fut instructors for lessons in their specialties. This meant my budget tripled, but it was worth it for the knowledge. Compared to today when people walk into a martial arts school and bargain for a cheaper tuition price, I always added many times to the regular price to make sure I earned the highest knowledge possible.
When I went to Hong Kong, I stayed at a relative’s house to reduce my expenses. The Chinese tradition is to not give a house key to guests, so many times after a long, hard day training, because my relatives were working I had to walk around until 10 p.m. or later before I could go home and sleep. I only mention this because now we hear complaints that people have to travel too far to train. Are they just looking for comfort or are they really serious about their martial arts education?
What are teachers? In any style of martial arts you have to have a legitimate lineage. You should try to stay with one teacher, following him as your guiding master in your martial arts training. Stay with that person until he certifies you or gives you permission to teach. That is your main teacher. When and if that teacher has nothing more to offer, then you can move on to learn more from another teacher.
In my case, grandmaster Hu sent me to see his own colleagues for more training. So, I was not looking to learn different styles. At that time, I claimed only Hu Yuen-Chou as my teacher. My first teacher, Lau Bun, died before I sought out Hu. Later, with Hu’s permission, Wong Gong taught me the advanced Choy Li Fut hand and weapon forms—authentic forms that were almost lost to Choy Li Fut. Then Wong Gong accepted me as his disciple.
Now, I’ve been doing seminars around the world with many people from different martial arts styles and Choy Li Fut students who are not in my Choy Li Fut lineage. I do not allow those people to use my name as their teacher. Even my students who traveled to Hong Kong to work with Hu Yuen-Chou did not call him their teacher. He was their sigong (teacher’s teacher).
Why do I insist on this traditional way to regard teachers? Because it is reflected in the quality of the students’ education and knowledge. If you know who your real teacher is and respect him for his knowledge, you will never deceive yourself about your own level of training and martial expertise. You have the potential to understand as much about your martial art as your teacher. And a good instructor makes sure you have the opportunity to reach that level.
This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Inside Kung Fu Magazine, “Training for Life” by Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong.