A New "Classical Mess" in the Making?
Originally published in July 2015
Okay, I know for certain that this blog is going to upset a number of people (so what else is new, right?), but here goes --
Is “classicalization” threatening to take hold in JKD? Is there a new “classical mess” in the making?
It seems to me that for the past number of years there has been a sort of movement underway, the goal of which appears to be, for wont of a better term, to “re-classicalize” Jeet Kune Do. What do I mean by this? For a start, let’s take a look at all of the Chinese terminology now being brought back into full use and pushed on people for everything related to JKD, from the names of tools one uses (jeong = palm), to the names of various techniques one uses (o’ou chuie = hooking fist), to one’s level or standing in the JKD family hierarchy (Si Bak, etc.).
Terms such as Si Bak, Si Hing, and Si Mo were never uttered from the time I began training until the time I departed from the Inosanto Academy back in the mid 1980’s. The term Sifu was used to designate our teacher Dan Inosanto, and we all knew and understood that Bruce Lee was known as the Si Gung, or founder of JKD, and was classified as our Si Jo, or our instructor’s instructor. However, most of the time he was simply referred to in conversation as Bruce. The constant references to him as “Sifu Bruce” “Si Gung Bruce” and Si Jo Bruce” came much later. Si Mo is one term that particularly bugs me. Every time I turn around, I see the wife of a JKD instructor being referred to as “Si Mo.” My wife and I have been married almost thirty four years now. In all that time I have never referred to her as Si Mo, and I never will. Nor will anyone else. Why not? Simple. I am not Chinese, I do not come from Chinese culture, I do not live in China, therefore why would I use such terms? In the same way that even though I practice and teach the Filipino martial arts, I do not use Filipino terms in relation to my wife and many other things.
When I began training in Dan Inosanto’s backyard in 1973, I was given a student handbook, which included lists of Chinese terms for certain kicks, punches, hand immobilizations, etc. I learned, for example, that the Chinese (Cantonese) term for a hook kick was “O’ou tek” (that is how it is spelled in the notes I was given), however, most of the time we simply referred to it as a hook kick. Even the terms for hand immobilization attacks were often abbreviated. So, for example, when we did a slapping hand trap with a lead hand straight punch to the face , we simply referred to it as “pak sao,” not “pak sao, chung chuie go da” (slapping hand/vertical fist/high hit) which would be the proper Chinese terminology. As I stated in another blog, if you truly want to follow such protocol and do it right, you should look to someone like Wing Chun Sifu Randy Williams as he uses the complete and correct Chinese terms for what he is doing.
Next, it seems as though some people are desperately trying to reconnect or re-affiliate JKD with Wing Chun gung fu. There is a debate currently going on as to whether or not Bruce Lee “abandoned” Wing Chun as he developed JKD. Some say he did. Others are adamant that he didn’t. But what do they mean by abandoned? The facts are that Bruce Lee spent three to four years studying Wing Chun gung fu in Hong Kong. His personal development in martial art continued when he came to the United States, and many aspects such as the principles of tactile awareness and energy sensitivity and the techniques of hand immobilization he learned while studying Wing Chun were firmly imbedded in his neuromuscular system, and he could access them anytime he wished. The fact that some of the things he practiced at an earlier time were no longer the main focal point of his own personal training (forms, chi sao, etc.) as his personal development continued in no way means that he abandoned them. However, he did believe that had moved away from a lot of the various aspects of Wing Chun, and that he could no longer call what he was doing Wing Chun. It makes me think of how often during our training that Dan used to remind us, “JKD has the element of trapping and sensitivity, but remember, you are not a Wing Chun man.” In the same way he used to say, “JKD has the element of boxing, but you are not a boxer” and “JKD has the element of grappling but you are not a wrestler.”
Understand that I am in no way denigrating or being disrespectful toward Wing Chun gung fu, because I am not. I have a great deal of respect for both the art and many of the practitioners of it such as Nino Bernardo, Francis Fong, etc. that I have had the pleasure of knowing through the years. But in no way, shape or form is JKD merely an offshoot of the Wing Chun system. The true “root” of JKD was Bruce Lee, the individual, not a particular style of martial art.
The passing years have also seen the creation and proliferation of a number of pre-arranged “sets” or “forms” built around certain elements of JKD, such as the “JKD wooden dummy sets,” the “Ung Moon form,” etc. Some JKD people say that these forms are an integral part of learning JKD and are therefore necessary. Others disagree. Personally, I am not against forms per se. I still remember learning the “JKD Kicking Set” many years ago, as well as a couple of other simple kicking sets that were listed in the student handbook I was given. But as soon as we learned them Dan told us to throw them away. The emphasis was on freelance shadowboxing and personal expression as opposed to structured forms. So if, for example, I wanted to focus my training on the development of simultaneous defense and attack, I would simply shadowbox using only simultaneous cover-and-hit. This also brought the element of creativity in, as well as the development of critical-thinking skills.
So here are my personal opinions regarding a few of the things I’ve just discussed (and please keep in mind that they are just that, my own opinions): 1) Is it necessary to learn the traditional 108 movements or even the so-called JKD Dummy Sets on the wooden dummy? No – As a JKD practitioner what is important is that you understand how to use the dummy for yourself and for what you are doing. For example, there are many movements that are worked in the traditional form that I would never use myself, so I don’t practice them. But I do work on certain principles such as centerline, body angulation, cutting the opponent’s weapons, etc.
2) Is it necessary to learn such things as the “JKD Kicking Set’ or the “Ung Moon” form? No – What is important is that you learn how to kick hard, fast, accurately, and with good timing, and combine your kicking with mobility and other skills. And that you understand and can use such principles as simultaneous defense and counterattack.
3) Is it necessary for a person to learn the plethora of Chinese terminology now appearing in JKD? No -- If you want to learn it, that’s fine. Having the material available to share with people and for historical context is great. But also keep in mind that these terms are in Cantonese, so people who speak Mandarin may not even understand what you are saying.
4) Is it necessary to memorize such things as various series of different hand-trapping combinations? No – What is important is that you understand that hand immobilization attack should be done in relation to the type of energy you receive from an opponent and not simply as a bunch of techniques you memorize. You should know how to use HIA actions both singly and in combination, and be able to recognize when to use it and when not to use it, etc. Having all of this material such as Chinese terminology and various sorts of pre-arranged sets at your disposal is all well and good. As I said, there’s nothing at all wrong with it. And being able to share this material with and explain it to your students is fine as well. Looking at things in a historical context is good. But don’t get so hung up on it that you miss seeing the big picture. I’d like to share an analogy Dan used to use when discussing how some people believed that it was necessary to study much of the older material relating to martial arts in order to understand JKD, “That is like saying that in order to understand modern warfare it’s necessary for you to dress in bright red coats like the early British army, and march across open fields in a straight line toward the enemy.”
Finally, and perhaps most important, we’ve have got to remember one simple thing, and that is that regardless of how we may feel, Bruce Lee was primarily interested in his own personal development – no one else’s -- he left that up to them. In a multi-part magazine article concerning JKD that appeared in Inside Kung Fu, Dan related how Bruce turned the Chinatown school teaching responsibilities over to him and told him that he didn’t want to teach because, “I’d cheat my own body. I could be using this time to develop my own body.”
As I look around, it seems to me that in many ways JKD has become more about the perpetuation of a style or an art rather than the cultivation of the individual.