Pitfalls of Learning Martial Arts in Taiwan

‘caveat emptor’- let the buyer beware

One would think that to find true knowledge, he/she must go to the source. While it is true that Taiwan and it’s many masters are a vastly important ‘living archive’ of the martial arts, my personal opinion is that while the quality of INFORMATION is generally very high, the quality of INSTRUCTION is quite poor.

Photos courtesy of Craig Ferguson Stock Photos

This is not just from a western perspective. Or maybe it is. Anyway, I’m the ‘buyer’ in this case. Or rather, I am the one who will spend 2 to 4 years learning what I need, or learning nothing. And 2 to 4 years is a long time for a 40 year old guy to learn nothing.

Not that I look at this from a purely marketplace, ie. ‘I pay you money,I should get what I pay for’ perspective. The relationship between a master and pupil is a lot more than money. A master does not HAVE TO teach you anything, especially if your attitude is ‘I’m paying you old man’.
Neither should someone waste your time. More importantly, YOU shouldn’t waste your time.

My observations of the problems in the Taiwan martial arts scene are pretty bleak. Here’s how I break it down:

Lao wai teachers – teachers who make their primary living from teaching tons of foreigners. Such teachers generally have a famous lineage, but that does not mean they were that master’s most promising pupil. Maybe they are good teachers. maybe they are good martial artists. Maybe not. But maybe they are just what foreigners need to experience Taiwan. Are you learning ‘real’ kung fu? Maybe yes. Maybe not.

The cognesceti – the in the know – These guys spend a lot of time telling you that the lao wai teachers aren’t the real thing, that this standardization is for the masses. Theirs is ‘real.’ But alas… they won’t teach it to you! Or if they do, you spend 3 to 4 years and you STILL haven’t mastered even the basics. Their level is so high (or maybe yours so low) that you lose all confidence. They can only instill in you how much more you need to learn. 4 years should be plenty long enough to gain a little confidence to face a bully. Even one year is plenty. Their kung fu may be the best, but what good is it if THEY WON’T TEACH YOU OR YOU CAN’T LEARN IT??

Taiwan temple kung fu – Mostly for festivals, partly for the mafia. I see this as one of the biggest problems in Taiwan – the mixture of organized crime, a religion that teaches a grey morality, and martial arts training that makes public menaces. Quality of information is actually not what you might expect.

Foreigner owned dojos- Quality of instruction usually good from what I can see.Quality of information? Probably has gaps.But good enough for 90% of what you’ll face.wouldn’t you rather be able to face 90% than live in fear of EVERYONE because your kung fu can’t beat that 10% that comprise the cognesceti’?

There are also blowhard foreigners that you have to watch out for. That said, the only guy I know in one of these organizations is an OUTSTANDING guy. I would send my children to him for instruction.

What recommendations can I give ?

Whatever you learn, it shouldn’t take too long. Contrary to what these teachers say, you do not have forever. Most foreigners will eventually go back to their countries.

The dojo you study at should have a ‘code’, a motto, a moral statement. That leaves temples out. Talk to a Taoist about anything, but morality! ‘How dare you try to inject morality into our religion’!!!

My feeling: learn a little wing chun.

How much? First form, wooden dummy, and sticky hands. That’s it. No more. That’s enough. Then go learn some jujitsu from some people who run a respectable club. Don’t deify what you learn (watch Youtube where the wing chun guy gets creamed, uses it wrong). Don’t deify your instructors.

I think this route is a reasonable one. Stay away from the mysticism.

I’m sorry that that temple of moral, righteous martial artist monks only exists in the movies. But we live in the modern world. Take what is useful from the old one, but don’t get stuck in it.

There’s a reason why Western culture won.

About the Author

Ran the Man is a musician,martial artist, language teacher, and defrocked renegade missionary (really). He has spoken Mandarin for over 20 years and been in Taiwan for over 10. He can be found occasionally in some God-forsaken dives in central Taiwan, where he drinks Coke and rum. See more of Ran's musings at his blog - The Truth About Taiwan

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