You probably recognize this video. Back in May of this year, an incident took place that reignited the debate between realism & traditionalism in the martial arts. It caused a huge stir in China, but the repercussions echoed everywhere.
I wrote a rather (very) angry piece in responses to the whole thing, but delayed posting for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. I now see that my reaction, my anger, was only barely related to the incident in the video. The real issue was my disapproval of a certain type of egotism that has plagued the World of Martial Arts most likely from its very beginning: self-deception.
My opinions aside, self-deception is a curse that many, many people have suffered from in the course of human history. Unfortunately, just as many will suffer from it in the future, as humans are unlikely to ever be “cured” of this problem.
If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that my disapproval has a selfish edge to it, in that dealing with people who lie to themselves bothers me. It bothers me much, much more than it should. I feel I shouldn’t have to deal with people who try to make up for a lack of talent & hard work with fantasy play. Another problem to deal with someday, ultimately.
In the World of Martial Arts, the dangers of self-deception are much greater than they would normally be. For normal people, it leads to missed opportunities, or embarrassment at worst. Only rarely does it result in injury or death. But for a martial artist, that proportion is almost always inverted: one who lies to themself about their skills is likely to meet an unpleasant end.
That is the exact situation depicted in the video above: realistic skill vs unrealistic assumption resulted in a firm punch in the mouth. Only one man was hit, but a good portion of a nation had their self-image damaged. Luckily, it was only an exhibition match & not the more traditional sort of “real” fight. Despite years of practice, a person regarded as a master martial artist was humiliated, shown to be nothing more than an elaborately embroidered beginner.
It’s shocking to say the least, but hardly rare in the World of Martial Arts. When one encounters this, it is normally in a new student or raw beginner, & not an established teacher with decades of experience. Still, self-deception remains self-deception & that doesn’t change, even after decades of involvement with a given activity. And self-deception can take many forms.
“The Eternal Beginner,” is the name I use to refer to one expression of self-deception that is all too common in the martial arts. You can recognize this type by their regular & deliberate attempts to derail class time. It absolutely must be about them, whatever “it” may be: group practice, solo practice, partner exercises, you name it. The Eternal Beginner tries to get all eyes on themself, as often as possible
There are more than a few subtypes, as always, that elaborate the basic idea & provide a foundation for response. Let’s take a look at some of the most common.
•The Born Genius: Perhaps the most frustrating subtype, the Born Genius has no experience, no physical skills, & usually no athleticism. But they know better than you, & the teacher, & the founder, & everyone who has ever been in a fight.
•The Know-Nothing Know-it-All: A close cousin of the above, the Know-Nothing Know-it-All contradicts at every turn with asinine questions, smugly delivered asides, & personal opinions grounded in prepubescent fantasy “experience.” They usually lack friends & sexual experience, in the normal social setting.
•The Pure Eternal Beginner, a.k.a. The Coward: They can’t, they just can’t. For whatever reason, be it “an old injury” that “never healed,” or a past trauma that’s still unresolved, this subtype will usually display real fear at the prospect of physical exertion or unfamiliar motion. I have never seen one of these types improve, no matter the teacher. The Coward can’t move forward because they won’t move forward.
•The Too Tough, Too Street-Wise: The inverse of The Coward is the Too Tough, Too Street-Wise type. Possibly the most normal & emotionally mature of all, they merely transform the fear they feel at entering unknown territory into false bravado. Prone to stories of ultimate badassery, they scowl & scoff at ideas & exercises in direct proportion to the novelty of those ideas & exercises. Basically, these are the guys that want to fight everybody in a “Tai Chi for Health Class.” In my experience, this is the easiest type to shake out of Eternal Beginner behavior. Unfortunately, it is also my experience that this is the ONLY type that an be shaken out of that behavior.
•The Disciple of Bruce: You know this guy. We all know this guy. Genuinely enthusiastic, genuinely wants to learn, & super pumped to finally be an official student of their chosen style. There’s just one problem: no matter the style, no matter the teacher, this guy is a wanna be Bruce Lee through & through. He can’t do anything without mean mugging. He can’t work with other students without hard grilling. He can’t move, at all, without loudly making “WAH-TAAAA,” noises. The Disciple of Bruce is why people in your family & social circle don’t take your interest in martial arts seriously. The Disciple of Bruce is oblivious to all criticism, all instruction, & all reality. They also exhibit the widest range of variation in expression among these subtypes. Some are normal until class gets going, some absolutely will not, cannot, practice or demonstrate their style without their “Kung Fu Outfit.” They may talk a lot of trash, or they may be truly devoted to self-improvement & display genuine humility. Personally, I think this is the largest segment of the Eternal Beginner group. It’s not that they don’t want to advance, it’s that they can’t let go of preconceptions.
•The Fraud: Anyone who is obviously out of shape, obviously a beginner, obviously looking to socialize & not sweat is a Fraud. The Fraud enrages me whenever I see them, as they will attempt to usurp control of the class the second they enter the room. No hesitation, no remorse, no humility. This is a truly toxic individual who must be expelled immediately for the sake of the class. The Fraud will steal from you, the Fraud will lie about you. The Fraud is basically a non-political SJW. Destroy them as soon as you find them, or everything will be ruined. You’ve been warned.
Of course, you may not have encountered these types. It’s entirely possible that I’ve assumed my personal experience is more widely spread. In any case, the underlying point stands: some people refuse to learn & prefer to play act instead. But there is one bright spot when dealing with these types.
The look on their faces when an experienced teacher outflanks them, diffusing all the attempts to derail or side track the class. It can be as simple as a dryly delivered “No,” or as elaborate as a series of warnings over the course of several classes. Whatever approach is taken in the end, the Eternal Beginner must be neutralized for the good of the other students.
I’ve always enjoyed that look of shock, that disbelief the Eternal Beginner becomes lost in when challenged. Many of them seem to be well-versed in passive-aggressive “Weakness Kung Fu,” to a degree inversely proportional to the Kung Fu being taught. As a result, they fall into shock when neutralized.
It is my firm belief that the subversive/defiant behavior of the Etranal Beginner, whatever the subtype, whether deliberate or unknowing, is a result of a negative mindset. One marked by a need remain in control. Ultimately, it is helplessness & powerlessness that are the defining characteristics of Eternal Beginners.
The great improvement to a student’s mindset, increased confidence, & emotional maturity, are the primary benefits of studying the martial arts, apart from the overall improvement of health. The Eternal Beginner throws all that away & denies their fellow students the opportunity to grow. They seek to remedy their feelings of powerlessness in a social setting, usurping control while avoiding responsibility. Obviously, they’d be better served following along & building themselves up, as that is the point of studying martial arts: transforming what is weak into what is strong.