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An Empty Cup

December 26, 2011

I do not fit in this country.  Yes, I know, that sounds like a hard pill to swallow when all the evidence points to me writing this in one of the largest countries in the world, but the facts are the facts.  It’s not that it’s so full of people already, although this is unavoidably, empirically true.   It’s not even directly due to me being an awkward six foot two in a nation of five footers.  It’s the legs, you see. My gangly, over-long legs.  They get in the way of everything.

Every table, chair, sofa seat and desk has been specifically designed as to make me do a really rather effective impression of an annoyed grasshopper every time I sit down.  This is not helped by the fact that every table seems to conceal a massive wooden lip, or metal bar, exactly where my knees like to spend their time whenever I sit down to eat, thus ensuring that whatever was standing tall and proud on the table before I arrived falls victim to gravity shortly after – drinks, chopstick holders, menus, decorations – none escape my clumsy wrath.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that these wonderfully long limbs would make me a dab hand at the more ‘fancy’ of the martial arts, with all their spinny, kicky, jumpy up and down-ey glory.  But that’s because you haven’t factored in the other small detail mentioned above, the awkward clumsiness that has haunted me for most of my life.  Few are the doors which I have walked through that have not also felt the wrath of my shoulder on their doorframe.

This is one of the reasons I chose the path of grappling, locking martial arts – they require, on the whole, less grace and delicacy, and at least when you start, it’s easier to bluff your way through with a bit of strength rather than trying to do it right.  This is a great way to pretend you are better than you are when you start, but a real pain further down the line when you begin to realise you’re not appreciating the nuances and subtleties of the art, or of course when you meet someone bigger and stronger than you.  Which you always will, sooner or later.

And that’s where I’m going with this, for those of you who are still with me (well done, by the way).  Whatever your reason for training, and there are many – competition, self defence, fitness, tradition, ego to name a few – the unavoidable fact remains that, sooner or later, you must measure yourself; for at the back of every martial artists mind is that nagging question that just won’t go away – does it work?  Is all this real?

There are as many ways to measure yourself as there are reasons for training.  Some choose to compete in tournaments, or mixed martial art bouts.  Some spend years perfecting form, or kata, measuring themselves against a timeless ideal of movement.  Some even choose to test it for real, working in jobs such as security or door supervision; and some spend their weekends, well, just getting in to fights.

I chose a different path.  I chose to measure my art against myself; my own values and beliefs, my own view of what I should be compared to what I am.  This might sound to you like the easy way out, but that’s because you’re not factoring in to your judgement the hideous insecurity that goes hand in hand with my training regime and journey.

Wherever I go, whatever I study, I’m followed by a little voice in my head that tells me I’m a fraud, I’m a fake, I’m indulging some childish fantasy about martial arts and am certainly not the ‘real deal’.  This is not helped by the fact that whenever it comes up in conversation, people generally tend to be impressed if you mention you’ve spent over a decade training in martial arts.

I’m always uncomfortable with this, because I never feel as though I deserve the respect that is sent my way.  I mean I don’t feel any different.  Where are my super powers?  My ability to leap burning buildings, or make someone pass out with a touch?  On a bad morning I can’t even touch my toes.  I’d probably be better off competing , having some external measure for what I do – at least then I wouldn’t have this nagging suspicion that everyone, everywhere is better than me at what I do.  I’d know for sure, for good or ill.

Here in China, watching my teachers of Qi Gong and Tai Chi Chen, doesn’t make it any easier as I gawp at a frail old man snap through his unexpectedly fast and snappy Tai Chi Chen movements, executing lightning quick punches and jumping kicks; or watch my Qi Gong instructor as she casually lifts her leg in a high arc through the air, in slow motion, as though it were on a string.  These feats look as far away to me now as they ever did, as far away as walking must look to a newborn child as he stares dumfounded at a baby only two years older, who is managing o perform this near-superhuman act of balancing on two of his limbs that are clearly designed to shuffle and crawl, as far as he is concerned thank you very much.

I guess that will always be true, and is the real wonder of martial arts.  If you get in to t because you want to do a high kick, or do the splits, or beat up ten people single handed, one of two things will happen.  You will realise that these minor miracles are ridiculously harder to achieve that you could have imagined, and you will quit; or you will work hard, train hard, achieve these goals and, having achieved what you set out to do, quit.

I came here with a goal – looking for Wing Chun and a vague fantasy of having an experience like the one I read about as a kid in Robert Twigger’s fantastic ‘Angry White Pyjamas’.  But one thing that is always true about China is that whatever you come here expecting, it’s not what you find, and I’m learning my lesson.

Only those who find a different truth to their training manage to stay for the long-haul, and achieve near-superhuman acts.  These are the ones who realise that it’s not a destination, it’s a journey.  What is important is the moment, the daily regime carried out solely with the one single goal of becoming more than you are.  Only then is your cup empty, and only then can you discover the real secret of martial arts – because it’s never what you went their looking for.

One Comment
  1. Marc Moor permalink

    Boxing Day joy to read your blog.

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