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What's Your Pedigree?
The Importance and Shortfalls of Lineage

Just as owners of purebred dogs concern themselves with the purity of their pets' pedigree, the martial art student should seriously consider the authenticity of their lineage. This means understanding whom your teacher learned from, whom this Grand-teacher learned from, and so on-- all the way back to the legendary or actual origin of the style. The importance of the birth of the style, and your relationship to that origin, lies within the way that martial systems are learned.

In Chinese martial arts, we consider systems to be "transmitted" or "passed down," and not merely "taught." The verbs used imply that a student does not learn a martial style like he studies mathematics in grade school, but rather inherits the art from his teacher. It assumes that he is more than just a face among many in a classroom, that his instructor has put significant effort into morally and physically cultivating this student based on his own abilities and limitations.

Because of this personalized manner in which a martial art is passed down, the source of the style becomes all the more important. More than just a collection of techniques, a martial system embodies a set of traditions, ideals, and theories. If the well from which these traditions emerge is tainted, then it sullies everything downstream. For example, many Wing Chun practitioners can trace their lineage back to Grandmaster Leung Jan - a far more reputable origin than say, Sifu Bob who taught himself from a book. Likewise, a teacher of Chen Taijiquan who learned in Chen Village from a member of the Chen family might have better insights than someone who simply mimics a group that gets together every Sunday morning in the park.

Gichin Funakoshi, the consolidator of modern KarateTherefore, an authentic lineage shows that the source of the style is sound. However, just like the "telephone game" we played as children-- where an original message may degrade or even change completely as it passes down a line-- a martial art has the chance of changing, evolving, or distorting as it passes from teacher to student to grandstudent to great-grandstudent. The farther away from the art's origin, the less likely it will resemble the art as envisioned by its founder. Direct students of Gichin Funakoshi might be more likely to teach Shotokan Karate accurately than a great-great-grandstudent who learns it six generations down, in a community center thousands of miles away from Tokyo's Shoto School.

Jigoro Kano, creator of JudoOf course, this evolution of a style can sometimes work out for the better. Exceptional practitioners will always add unique insights into their art, codify ideas, or rediscover techniques that had been lost. Jigoro Kano simplified several families of Jujitsu to create the standardized art of Judo. Later, one of his powerful grandstudents Mitsuyo Maeda took it to Brazil, where his student Carlos Gracie tested and adapted it to the streets and his small-statured son Helio injected finesse and precise mechanics to contribute to the development of Gracie Jujitsu. Other styles have been created in similar fashion, such as Bruce Lee'screation of Jun Fan Kung Fu and Jeet Kune Do; or Chan Heung's fusion of the Choy, Lay, and Shaolin styles in Choy Lay Fut. However, these extraordinary individuals are the exception rather than the rule, and teachers are not uncommonly less skilled than their own instructors.

Therefore, a good lineage is often the starting point for solid martial skills. However, it can also breed complacency. Unfortunately, some students who know they have a good teacher and a good source sometimes assume they can achieve a high level of skill without putting in the same amount of effort. They believe that by going through the motions without putting their heart, mind, and sweat into it will allow them to achieve their teacher's hard-earned level of ability. But we can logically surmise that you will never become a good weaver without weaving or excel at pottery without practice, regardless of how good your instructor is. What makes martial arts any different? It is not the years of practice but rather the hours of effort that really count!

In addition to the pitfalls of complacency, good lineage can also breed arrogance. Some students will often rave about how good their teacher is, and assume that they are the only ones learning the "real" thing. Think about all the political rivalries that tore the Wing Chun community apart in the '80s. Or the posturing that fragmented Kyoukushin Karate into four major branches. Sure, exceptional teachers may be rare; but if you think that only 1 in 100 "get it," then out of the millions of martial arts instructors and students out there, a significant number must be good! Everyone brings their own unique insights, experiences, and mental and physical characteristics to their art, and each interprets and manifests based upon these original attributes. It is unsafe to assume that just because your instructor is awesome that he is the best or that he has a monopoly on the truth.

Taking all of these factors into account, what good is lineage? In my opinion, it should serve as a motivating factor in your own practice. If your teacher is good and comes from a solid line, use that to inspire yourself to improve and excel. It should become a springboard for your own dedicated training and not a weight that holds you back or alienates you from the martial community as a whole.