Friday, November 29, 2013

They don't make em like they used to

They don't make em like they used to  

 written by Steve Contes

Can we attain the extraordinary skills that legends are made of?

Huang Fei Hung - Museum, Foshan, China         Chen Fake - Chen Jiagou, China

Yip Man aka Ip Man  Wing Chun (Ving Tsun) Master  - Photo below taken at     Yip Man Museum in Foshan China



Where are all the great Masters of yesteryears? The heroes in which we draw are inspirations from. The heroes that have influenced filmmakers from Hollywood to Hong Kong. Heroes that have been portrayed by modern day kung fu stars such Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and so on goes the prestigious list.

 With all the advancement and greater understanding with in the sciences of training, technology, kinesiology and nutrition you’d think we could produce super-human Martial Artists.

Nutrition alone has made us bigger, faster and stronger than before. Just watch the Olympics and see how all other areas of athleticism continue to advance and ask yourself, why not Kung Fu or other traditional martial arts. As a matter of fact why does it appear that the newer generations of Masters are lacking some of the legendary skills now only spoken about. Could it be that they are just that, legends that may have been born out of mere remnants of the truth, but have grown larger than life over time and strayed away from accurate assessments of martial skills.

Perhaps it is also perception and the desire of each individual to believe that their teachers are the best around and their teacher’s teachers were the stuff of legends. Will our perception of our own teachers become embellished regarding the legitimate skills they possess?   

Has our life so full of conveniences and so called advantages turned against us, making us softer and weaker (physically, mentally, and spiritually)?

Have we lost contact with the spiritual and mental side of training?

Are we not in need of some of the martial skills that were once necessary for our personal survival?

How does discipline fit in to the formula and why is it often lacking?


I will examine this issue from these different angles.

Perhaps the answer to our topic lies in a combination of our Perception, Lifestyle, Necessity, the potentially missing aspect of our Spirituality and conceivably the most neglected ingredient discipline. 


Here is but a brief look at perception. To cover the subject in depth would provide enough material to fill volumes


With the utmost respect I refer to the explanation below.

Perception as explained by Dr. Francis Colavita  (Emeritus Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught for more than 40 years) extracted from The Great Courses Web Site : Click Here for site

Though the physical world we occupy may be identical, the reality we experience—the perceptions created when our brains combine the input from our senses with past encounters with those same inputs—is very different. And this is true not only from one person to another, but within the same individual, as well. For our various sensory systems can be altered over time, their acuity changing in response to aging or injury, life experiences, evolving personalities, and other factors.

Through my professional experience as a private detective I have had the opportunity to investigate hundreds of cases which have included taking statements from witnesses that witnessed the same incident. It is more often than not that statements differ from slightly to totally.  I have also gone back and updated statements from original witnesses (after a year to sometimes even five or ten) that are quite different from what they thought and definitively stated when their memory was fresher. From one of my earlier careers as a  bouncer in my hometown I had witnessed this same phenomenon.  It has affected stories about altercations (personally involving me) at the clubs that I worked.  (Certainly stories that in reality I could never live up to) So we can consider the valid point expressed above as a possible answer to not intentionally exaggerating or explaining what someone may have seen or even more indirectly heard. We can also consider the fact that our memories and perception of events in our own life change over time.  Sit down with a sibling or old friend and discuss in detail an event that you both shared, you will likely have many differences.

Even events that two or more people observe at the same time may appear to be quite different from each other and more importantly so than the reality and surrounding facts of the event itself. Ask two sports fans watching the same game that favor opposing teams to describe a possible foul or penalty during the game or if there were any reasons why their team won or lost. (Keep in mind they both just witnessed the same event on the same screen and then cautiously step back.) You may have just fueled a great debate or worse. What we actually see, hear, smell, taste, or touch and remember have many influences often leading to many inaccuracies. People also blur the boundaries of what is subjective and what is objective. That is why most people believe they have the cutest kid, know the best mechanic, and have the smartest friends or the dumbest, and that no other mom can cook like their own.  What student of the Martial Arts has not at least mildly inflated stories or experiences related to what they have witnessed regarding their teachers or training?

This is certainly a contributing factor to the topic of trying to discover why I believe they don’t make them like they used to.  However this does not alter the fact that I personally believe that some great masters did indeed exist and a smaller subset even possessed extraordinary skills.                    


It would be hard to argue that the conveniences we experience today and perhaps take for granted were not part of the lifestyle of our grandparents nor are they part of the lives of many living under third world or less modern conditions. Unfortunately we have also picked up many negative elements related to such conveniences including stress and often an overall decline in personal health from this so called “good life”.  
I believe a challenging lifestyle with less stress can be conducive to a strong body and mind. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon living and working in a small city in China for three years. I observed many people and their daily routines (minus some of the so called advantages of modern living) enjoying success in most of their endeavors large or small.

This also included their martial skills.  A very basic example: It stands to reason that an individual who walks at least few miles to and from work daily (often carrying the needed tools) regardless of sub zero or extremely hot temperatures will not only be physically healthier but develop a more disciplined mind to complete what needs to be done. A few more examples would be the person who rides their bicycle to work under the same conditions but even a greater distance. Or the laborers commonly observed on road or construction crews using simple tools to accomplish great physical feats from digging to moving heavy objects. (Tasks that one would think should never be attempted without the assistance of modern machinery.)

I am not implying that individuals here in the States are not capable of the same, but what I am stating is that here it is a rarity while in China it is considered ordinary. 

I personally used my bike (while living in China for three years) as my main mode of transportation which included riding my two children one in the back and one seated in front of me to and from school daily. A second round trip was made daily with my niece on the back seat to a different school several miles from our home. This had to be done on a Mon-Fri schedule, rain, snow or shine, freezing or extremely hot. Prior to this daily ritual which started about 7:00am was my own daily trip to the park for a 90 min Taiji/exercise workout and my stop on the way back home to pick up fresh milk for our family breakfast. Of course each day I also transported myself to work and did the food shopping with the help of my wife and her bicycle.  (Two bikes were needed to carry back the groceries daily because we only had a very small refrigerator)

 Bike for Transportation is not limited to times of favorable weather.



 triple baskets carry more groceries
What was born of these new found necessities was a healthier/stronger body with a more disciplined approach to the chores at hand fueled by freshly picked vegetables and fruits and a better appreciation of everything we ate or drank.  This is but a fraction of what others did and still must do daily.  For me personally, I grew to prefer this method of living to any other I have experienced before or since. Consider the levels of both physical and mental challenges to the people of this particular small city and you can understand why they might excel in all their other endeavors such as Kung Fu or for that matter anything else. Back this scenario up another hundred years and consider the discipline needed to face the extreme challenges daily just to put food on the table and you can begin to consider lifestyle as a major player in the life of a Kung Fu master. 


Necessity / Survival

Now let’s dig a little deeper to another aspect of lifestyle that is part of our primordial instinct, survival. Kung Fu was born of necessity in order to protect oneself, family or a skill needed for occupations dealing with protecting others and their belongings. Many Masters were employed as bodyguards and escorts in an era where their lives were on the line or challenged on a regular basis. Others were great military men or royal guards for emperors and their families. It was also realized by these individuals that while death was always near their skills were the only armor keeping them alive.  Kung Fu was not practiced as a method for an individual to get in to shape on par with today’s other activities such as jogging or swimming, tennis or racquet ball. Classes were not scheduled two to three times a week as an after work / after school activity. Kung Fu was a necessity of life and the closer they came to perfection the increased chances for survival. Life was often dedicated to training. You can’t find much more incentive for developing Mastery of your Martial Art than that.

I will mildly compare and contrast the life of a professional fighter. During their career they are dedicated to perfecting the physical and mental skills of their craft. No other priority in life can dominate if he or she is to achieve that goal. However the most important factor removed from the equation is they are not fighting for their lives nor are they defending their families or any other individuals. 

Secondly I will relate the above to the modern elite soldier. Although the soldier trains their skills to survive as did many of the Martial arts Legends before him,  they rely on modern technology and advanced weapon systems as opposed to focusing on hand to hand combat,  wielding swords or other hand held (self-powered) weapons.



Perhaps the deepest desire was beyond the physical attributes attained by the ordinary Martial Artist. It may well be the never ending search for spiritual enlightenment. For many Masters the physical paths followed were only a prelude to the environment necessary to begin the journey to true Spiritual Enlightenment. This being the most difficult objective of all was far beyond just the extraordinary physical skills some had already come to possess be it from training, lifestyle, necessity or a combination of. However when spiritual enlightenment was achieved the elements of clarity and sensitivity were also realized. This may be why the Master appears to know his opponents’ attacks before they are launched or physically visible enhancing the ability to defend and counter. Another key element to the consummate master is the removal of fear. Now enlightened and no longer living in trepidation of death the Martial artist was transformed in to true master. His physical skills were elevated to an extremely high level; perhaps the stuff legends are made of and his exploits will continue to echo through the generations.



Of course none of the above mentioned needed to reach mastery as a Martial Artist could be attained without extreme discipline. The greater the degree of personal discipline is directly related to the degree of personal proficiency in anything we aspire to do or be. Could Masters today reach the same level of skills as those that came before them? I answer with an emphatic YES! Will they or for that matter will you?  That I cannot answer, only you know if you will. 


Hopefully better understanding of the above can lead us to some of the extraordinary skills we as martial artists only dream about.
Please send me your comments or opinions regarding this article.