I feel awkward taking credit for this story for two reasons. The first has to do with the subject matter. As a martial arts writer myself, I have long found in Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming's work a tremendous source of personal inspiration. When I was a fledgling freelance writer, intelligently-written books on Chinese martial arts were few and far between. Back then, most books made scant offerings: a few pages of introduction, typically a recounting of apocryphal Shaolin legends, followed by a short discussion of the author's lineage and style. The rest were "how to" photos and captions. Dr. Yang's books were thick and informative. Not only did they expand upon those stereotypical introductions, they provided some serious background research and insight on the topic. For the literate martial artist, Dr. Yang's books were a breath of fresh air. They really opened the door to deeper knowledge for practitioners who only read English. I still reference his books today. In fact, if you were to excavate the perpetual avalanche of work piling my desk, you'd find more books by Dr. Yang than any other English-language author. So for me to interview Dr. Yang was like the student interviewing the founding grandmaster.
The interview itself was the second bit of awkwardness. Typically, the process of interviewing a master is a lot like playing ping pong, swatting ideas back and forth, looking for that revealing dramatic volley. Many masters aren't accustomed to the interview process. Why should they be? And frankly, I'm no Letterman or Oprah. So there's a lot that goes into most cover story interviews - as well as a lot of editing - to make the conversation flow for a decent read. But with Dr. Yang, I only asked two questions, and he just ran with them in a cohesive improvised monolog. What's more, he anticipated most all of my follow-up questions. So I feel a little guilty because all I really did was transcribe his answers. It all started with one question.
This biggest problem is lifestyle has changed. Trace back how traditional martial arts were developed. They developed because they think about the ancient society. 99.99% of the people were farmers. They don't have such things as industrial business like today. It ended up that in the daytime, people had a lot of time. Everyone had a small piece of land, and in their extra time they practiced martial arts. My White Crane master, he was a farmer. I asked him, "How long did it really take you to take care of the land, take care of the farm?" He said, "A couple hours a day." I asked, "What did you do for the rest of the time?" He said, "Well, I played chess. I practiced martial arts. Talk to friends." Ancient people had more time to enjoy life than today's people.
People you see today, for example, in the industrial life, you get up in the morning, you go to work, you go to sleep - ain't got no life. This only happened in modern life, in modern times. It actually started in the last century. Now this has become a big problem. The big problem is this art was developed in ancient times by people who had time and had patience.
When people have time and patience and commitment, then they can reach high levels. Classical music is the same thing. In classical music today, we've encountered a big problem. For classical music today, it's hard to survive. For example, a few years ago I was in Vienna. Remember Vienna's choir, Italy's choir, is the most famous in the whole world. I talked to them and they say that every town puts one applicant - they chose one. But today, they can't even find people that want to apply. Because that lifestyle is totally different and people don't want to make commitments like ancient times, (don't) want to reach high levels. Everything is what I call "McDonald culture." Everything is quick, quick, quick. This kind of mental influences heavily destroys traditional martial arts as well. So that becomes a big problem.
In ancient times, anybody who wants to learn martial arts, you'd spend ten years. Ten years and you still learn the basics. You take the rest of your lifetime to live out. Today there's no difference - you play piano, you play violin, ten years, it's all basic and not until there, you get to the advanced level. You see the very famous pianist or violinist, they spend thirty years and they reach a very high level. The question is, can you find those committed people today? That becomes the hardest problem. For example, for my ten-year program, the hardest part is to find qualified students that have that preparation psychologically, and are willing to jump out of today's society and to enter the mountain, to accept the training. Traditional martial arts were developed under ancient situations. So that's why students, they can go to the mountains, they can train there without too much distraction from modern society. And that's why art can reach deep. But today, you don't.
It took me a long time to figure out. How can I preserve the arts without allowing it to get lost? For example, my generation - I was born in 1946 - I was between the old society and new society, especially in Taiwan. So because I still had old society, I could still see my masters' levels when they train. And at the same time, I can enter the new society, because I also experienced the new society as an engineer. So that's why I can see both sides clearly - what happened. And now, how can we use today's mentality to train the ancient way and to preserve the art? It's impossible, because between me and my master, I already lost half of the knowledge. My master spent 23 years with his master. They trained together and practiced together, because it's their life. So that's why my master always said, "You are not really learning martial arts, you are learning the way of life," because you always get into it and that's your life. So 23 years to him is nothing. But today, 23 years, it's a waste. Twenty-three years is so long. But think about it, my master lived with his master for 23 years. How can I train with him only 13 years - and those 13 years we didn't even live together; I only trained in the night time - how can I reach the same level as my master? Only two words - no way. I didn't learn half of what he knew and he took it with him.
That's what makes me so upset, because in 1976 he passed away. In '74, I came to the United States and '76 he passed away. I didn't even know. When my mother came in 1978 before my first son was born, my mother told me, "Your master passed away two years ago." My master lived in the mountains. He couldn't read. He couldn't write. Everything came from my family and passed a message to me. My mother had no mail to deliver, nothing. And I asked my mom, "Why you didn't want to tell me?" My mom asked me a very serious question. She said, "What would you do if I told you your master passed away?" I couldn't answer. My mom knew if I knew that, I would just quit my school and go home for my master's funeral. My mom said, "That's the reason I didn't want to tell you. To me, your school is more important - your PhD is more important - than your master's funeral." It was my mother's love to her son. I understand. So in 1979, I got my first vacation. I went back. Right in front of my master's tomb in the hot summer, and his two kids with me, because I didn't know where was the tomb, so his two kids took me to his tomb.… I just sat there in the hot summer. I feel… I feel so sad. Why so sad? It's not the death. It's the knowledge. He spent all his lifetime on knowledge - he took with him - is dead. How do we get it back? No way I can get it back.
See, that's why that time people asked me, "Dr. Yang, how come you produce so much DVDs and videotapes and books, whatever?" I never hesitate to publicize it. I never hesitate to tell what is real. I know there are Chinese masters that say, "Oh, this is top secret. I cannot tell you." To me, there is no such thing called "secret." "Secret" is dying. Where is the secret? You want to preserve it. It's not really something secret. So for that reason, I swore right in front of my master's tomb. I said, "As long as I'm alive, I will try my best to keep these arts alive." That was 1979. In 1981, my first book was published. When I came back, I started writing. I fulfill my promise to my master.
And so when I was fifty, I started to think. In 1984, I quit my engineering job. I wrote all these books. After teaching twenty years, everything is shallow. Why shallow? It's not because the knowledge is not there. It's because people don't have that kind of lifestyle. They don't have that kind of commitment to get in deep. They don't understand the deep aspect of the martial arts. All those things that they see are the forms. Like for example, take taijiquan. The taijiquan they see so far is forms. What is the essence behind the forms? What is the internal side of taiji? Very few people know. But those people who know, they keep it a secret. But what is the secret? Everything becomes surface. That's why I call it McDonald culture, everything quick, quick, quick. Then I started to wake up. When I was fifty - that was thirteen years ago - I started to wake up and say, "No, I was wrong." I tried to preserve the art for twenty years through writing, publishing, whatever. Everything is still shallow. My students studied with me for twenty years. They didn't even pick up half of what I know. And compare me to my master - I don't know half of what he knew. Just think about it. Within fifty years, the arts dropped down from 100 to 25%.
Who's fault? Is it society's fault or the person who knows the arts and doesn't share with other people? He doesn't really carry that obligation - because that's an obligation. Remember I learned from three masters. I didn't pay a penny. In the ancient times, the master teaches students, it's not because I want to make money. It's because it's an art - continue pass down. It's from the heart. You teach students from the heart, there's no money involved. The only time my classmates and I spend money is my master's birthday and Chinese New Year. We chip in some money and buy some gift. A little bit of money. It ended up always his wife would cook a big meal for everyone. We ate more than what we spent. That's the Chinese way. You look at the ancient times. A lot of masters, they don't even take money from students at all because they want to share these arts to preserve it.
Today I want to take students up the mountain for ten years of training.