Authenticity and competence in Chinese martial arts

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com Does his performance look competent to you? What about authentic?

As noted at about 6.58 in this lecture on Tao Lu (forms) by Daniel Mroz, which I find myself coming back to frequently, martial artists, when evaluating others, are primarily concerned with two things: 1. authenticity and 2. competence.

Firstly, to be “good” a video clip showing a form performance, or sparring sequence must be authentic, by which I mean it must be clearly demonstrating the martial art style it claims to be. Evidence for this can be found amongst the many howls of “that’s not even Tai Chi!” That lie in the comments section beneath any video clips pertaining to be Tai Chi shown in some sort of real, full or semi-contact application.

Even competence, without the necessary authenticity to back it up, is thrown out.  Imagine the horror of a kick boxing clip accidentally labelled “full contact Wing Chun” leaking onto the Internet for example. People would get very upset. And it would inevitably lead to accusations that “You are destroying the very art itself!”, regardless of whether the techniques shown were competent.

Authenticity, then, is the most important thing. But who is to judge the authenticity of a performer? Quite often it cannot be seen in their performance, but is inferred by their lineage.  One of the many reasons that lineage is such a big deal in Chinese martial arts, and not such a big deal in other martial arts that have a more sporting focus, is that it confers legitimacy. Any authenticity gathered by being able to overpower somebody in a confrontation (whether cooperative, staged or real) is instantly rendered null and void if it turns out that your teacher’s teacher was a DVD player. In contrast, martial arts that have a sporting side can derive their credibility from competition results instead, so lineage is not such a big deal.

Sometimes the aesthetics of the situation can speak to authenticity. Chinese martial artists often wear silk pyjamas and sippers, despite their complete lack of suitability for opening a can of whoop ass in, but they do confer the image of authenticity. Then there’s the ethnicity. Being Chinese clearly gives you an advantage in the authenticity stakes. These are, after all, Chinese martial arts.

But once authenticity is established, what next? We then look to competence. Does what they are doing look competent? i.e. would it work. And often this is where most martial artists, who exist in a modern Wu Shu culture that has no concept of a punch to the face being a regular and valid occurrence, seem to have the most trouble. 

Chinese television regularly ran TV shows where state-approved martial arts masters presented themselves doing completely ridiculous things, like single-handedly beating a bunch of rugby players at rugby, or stopping a bird taking off from the palm of their hand because of their advanced sensitivity. Beating strong men in strength contests. Even beating a Judo player at Judo. This was not done with a sense of comic irony, as it would be in the West. The viewer was expected to take these things at face value, and it seems that a lot of people actually did. Including many Western martial artists who posted these tragicomedies as proof of the untapped potential of the internal arts. (See my recent post for more of this phenomena).

Competence then, like beauty, is also, it seems, in the eye of the beholder. 

What is to be done about this situation? Probably nothing. It always was thus, and probably always will be.

However, you can start to notice when you fall into the same trap. You can bet that 90% of the arguments you find on martial arts discussion forums are not about the thing itself being discussed, but about what the thing is called. Take away the name of the video clip, martial art or subject and you remove the majority of issues of authenticity, and you are often left with only competence to discuss, but as we’ve seen, even that is subjective. Still, I would argue it makes for a better discussion.

Authentic and competent? You decide. Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com