martial philosophy fallout - my story of cuong nhu failure

Tonight, I'm considering quitting Cuong Nhu.  And, strangely, although it's been sitting in my mind for a while, everything has been put into place by one of the people I've come to respect most at Clemson - Darius Jones, my Cuong Nhu teacher.

I originally started Cuong Nhu because I was afraid to lose the aspect of my life which is so centered on martial arts.  Looking around at what clubs existed at Clemson, I found a disheartening lack of any Chinese martial arts (which seem to be going strong at all the other institutions I have friends at).  The closest thing I could find was Cuong Nhu, which blends several arts together including Wing Chun and T'ai Chi Chuan.

So I enrolled.

A particularly interesting thing about Cuong Nhu that attracted me was its similarity to Kempo.  With that in mind, I felt pretty good about how I was doing in class.  I tried to be very careful about over-performing, so to speak.  And I did pretty well at that too.

Soon, though, I came to realize that something was missing.  I'm not sure if it was because I knew too much already, or if it was because of a lack of something in the instructors' roles, but I was certainly not being mentally stimulated.  The physical conditioning was great, don't get me wrong.  But I hold the strong opinion that the martial arts are not just physical, but also both mental and spiritual, and I was not getting the latter two of those stimulations.

I had kind of known all along that this was going to happen to a degree, because I would initially be training alongside less experienced martial artists; and that's okay.  I actually enjoy watching them learn, and I'm glad that I can help them when I can.  So I knew this was coming, but I had a plan.  To compensate, my plan was to make an effort to more deeply understand the art.  My plan was to examine every part of it carefully, with scrutiny, and perhaps understand the both the mechanics and the philosophy of it with more depth.

In the first few weeks of my classes, this kinda worked out.  And to my surprise, some of my instructors even seemed to supplement my training.  I remember that during our first class about rolling, Sensai Nick coached me on new, harder things try since I initially knew how to do it all or picked it up with a good bit of ease.

I'm not saying that I got everything right, of course.  Many things were harder for me, since I was accustomed to other philosophies of fighting.  But that's okay.

Sadly, though, things like that faded.  I was back to my initial plan; criticize, examine, scrutinize, disassemble, and comprehend.  I didn't have malicious intent with these things; my plan was not to expose flaws in the system.  I figured that if a scholar learns by careful analysis of literature, why shouldn't an martial practitioner learn by careful analysis of his art?  So this is what I did, and I kept it in my head, in notebooks, and some of it in my muscle memory.

Today, though, I was corrected for the form I took on my "inner chop" strike (crosshand shuto strike).  I didn't really mind, and I corrected it, but I asked afterwards why we should fully chamber the hand instead of striking from the waist.  I knew the answer, of course, because I had been asked the question seemingly hundreds of times by white belts, especially the younger ones.  But I asked anyway, because I felt that having mastered the basic strike, it was more efficient and practical to not fully chamber to the ear.

This is the point at which our marital philosophies took separate paths.  My answer to this question would be "because we learn it this way to make your strike better as you perfect it", meaning that we learn it this way as white belts so that we understand the outline of motion, but that it is clearly ideal to generate equal force across a shorter (and therefore quicker) path of attack.  We will also, then, eliminate telegraphing the strike to the opponent.

Sensai Darius's answer, however was simply - and I paraphrase, of course, because I can't remember verbatim - that we do it this way because that's the way it is.  This answer was, on the whole, not what I expected.  I've given that answer to questions before too, but usually when it pertained to the order of moves in forms and katas or the names associated with techniques.  I almost never given such an answer when a student has questioned the mechanics or practicality of a strike, and neither have my instructors before me.  Even if the answer is "we'll talk about it later", I try to explain the reasoning behind the move.

I was so surprised by this answer that I was actually somewhat... distraught?  From a man I had come to respect and, to a degree, admire as a martial artist, I had expected a more elaborate comparison of my suggestion against his dictated form.  He acknowledged that my way might make sense sometimes, but that we did it this way for basics.

Clearly, this makes sense, right?  Well, sort of, but not really.  I understand that this would be the answer to someone who has just learned the strike, but he and I both know that I've been doing the strike for 14 years.  I can do the strike in my sleep.  If our roles were switched, I would have allowed it to be done differently in basics if it made more sense and wasn't too big of a change.  Why?  Because basics are where we engrain technique into our muscle memory.  In a fighting situation, simply knowing that it would be faster to throw a shuto from the hip means nothing if all you've ever done is thrown it from the ear, just like remembering what a technique looks like doesn't help you until you've practiced it over and over.

[On a separate note, I also asked why we have to start our wrist from a weird rotated position before executing a middle (#1 or #2) block.  He did give me an answer this time; but I can't make sense of it.  He claimed that by rotating the arm as it blocked, it would "torque" the arm to give it more power.  I can't make sense of this, though; the only effect outside of the arm would be a (very!) slight increase in angular momentum, but on the axis of the arm, not the axis of motion.]

Anyway, I asked him this while everyone was getting water, and class restarted afterwards.  It continued and ended.

After class, he pulled me aside into the equipment room, along with Sensai Bruce.

The first thing he told me about was that some of the time I was standing with my arms crossed or on my belt, and that it wasn't really following etiquette.  Mreh, I think, okay.  I know that I do that sometimes, especially when I'm tired, and I understand where he's coming from (even though it's not in the etiquette list that he claimed stated it).  So whatever.  I'll try to fix that.

But then... ugh.  Then it came.

Paraphrasing (hopefully not too unfairly), he said that my question was to some degree out of line, but that my follow up response of dissatisfaction with his answer came off as arrogant and cocky.  To his credit, he did allow that perhaps it just came off this way and that I didn't mean it, but it was quite clear from his manner of speech and his follow up remarks that he was quite convinced that I was was being cocky and arrogant.

Which is untrue!  If I write a critical analysis of Kant, am I claiming to be a superior philosopher?  If I question the mechanics of a proof in calculus, am I claiming to be a superior mathematician to my professor?  Can I not question - and requestion, if necessary - the mechanics of a martial art?

Apparently, the answer is no.  He made it quite clear (although Sensai Bruce seemed to keep contradicting him on a few points, a pattern for which I was quite thankful) that Cuong Nhu was static and, to put in short, set in stone until his superiors say otherwise.

In some ways, I find this to be arrogant.  Consider the various styles of Chinese wu shu.  They have been around for millenia, and are still being refined - not by some core board of directors, but by both masters and students across the world, bettering styles and letting them be adopted through a genetic natural selection of sorts.  But in accordance with Taoist philosophy, there is very little close-mindedness in the Chinese arts.

I thought this was true with Cuong Nhu, considering that one of their "Five O's" is "Open Mind."  But I suppose your mind can only be open to yourself.

What came next was a bigger surprise; after I talked a bit about practicality in self-defense, Darius made the (in my opinion, very broad and philosophical) claim that Cuong Nhu is not primarily about self defense, but about self betterment.  I could see where he was going until he said that "the moves are irrelevant... if we are told [to load a shuto from the forehead], then we should do it."  While many martial arts are deeply rooted in philosophy and many, especially Chinese arts, ultimately aspire to other than physical perfection, I have never heard of a respected martial art which disregards the "martial" aspect as nothing more than a medium for self improvement and "following orders" (as he said).

I don't just want a self-improvement program, and I don't just want a physical fitness regimen.  I want an art.

This is why I am considering quitting, but I'll probably let the semester run through and see how I feel then.  If I do quit, I will probably start a Clemson Wu Shu Association of sorts, since I know some people who have expressed interest.  It seems to be pretty popular at colleges these days anyway, and I know a few people from Charleston and North Carolina who I might be able to get to do some cool seminars on occasion.

Blegh.  If you got all the way to here without skipping, you gain 450 exp.  Congratulations.  I have more to say, but this is way too long as it is, so I'll discuss it later.


  1. I have heard this said so many times before and i have come to realize the truth of it more and more:
    Our studio is unlike any other, it is one of the best.
    I also recently found out about how hard it was for Mike and Phil to begin their business. A guy who used to take karate at our studio came back on monday night to visit. He himself started a studio about two years ago. He said that for weeks he barely ate because he did not have the money, it was all devoted to the studio. Bobby then explained that yes, the first year is the hardest and that Phil and Mike went through the same ordeal. Now that says a lot, about their character and about their love for what they do. Thats why they are successful today. Now i have to say love comes from close examination, from the understanding and partaking in something. You cannot fully love something unless you are able to question and examine it. To force people to"just do" something will never gain devotion.

    As you can tell, i also feel strongly for this.

  2. Do yourself a favor and quit. You should find a nice school on top of a lone mountain where you can follow your path of enlightenment. Almost every style has some standardization so they look good when doing techniques at the same time. For every application that you would follow the standardized move, there are probably a hundred where you would use a variation. In your quiet mountain-top school you will have all the time to practice every variation of every technique... because that is how masters get their rank. Infinite variety should only take 20 years or so to nail down.

    Seriously. It is the artist, not the art. Any serious martial artist is on the path to the same place... no style, no mind.

  3. Thanks to both of you. Anastasia, I agree. I don't think something can just be blindly followed; we have to examine our beliefs and philosophies, be they existential or martial. That's pretty cool about that guy, by the way. What's his name? Did Bobby know him? I'll find out this weekend, I guess.

    And to Anonymous: I don't think I know you, but I appreciate your insight. I have, admittedly, considered hermiting myself in the mountains of North Carolina where there's already quite a bit of Chinese martial art activity... but there are other things for me to do in life. =) At some point in my life, though, I would like to set aside plenty of time for a very quiet and introspective investigation of myself and my art, perhaps when I'm older. I wouldn't mind opening a (small) school if I feel like settling down and if I have the money.

    Interesting that you mention "infinite variety". Do you study a martial art yourself (or perhaps you're just versed in taoism?)

    Either way, I appreciate both of your comments. Thanks for reading through my far-too-long blog post.

  4. Jack has learned... Vine Whip!

  5. What? BULBASAUR is evolving!
    BULBASAUR evolved into IVYSAUR!


    Congrats, man.