What is “tradition”? And why should we even care?

22 Dec

People in the so called “traditional” martial arts community react to my particular approach to Chan Tai-San’s teachings in a wide variety of ways. Some clearly understand my approach, but I would say for every one of those people there are at least three who are at least puzzled. Some ask me if I still teach the empty hand forms that Chan Tai-San taught? I do NOT, and so many of them then ask why I am not keeping his “tradition” alive? Of course, on the most negative end of the spectrum, some have accused me of abandoning Chan Tai-San altogether.


What exactly is “tradition”? In the case of Chan Tai-San, clearly this is a question worth pondering? I was formally adopted by Sifu Chan as a disciple of his Lama Pai lineage. Yet, that lineage was anything but a straight line. In addition to his primary teacher Jyu Chyuhn, Chan Tai-San studied several other versions of Lama Pai, including a Manchurian version from Ma Yi-Po. Chan Tai-San’s “Lama Pai” included influences from other “Lion’s Roar” teachers he studied with, those affiliated with Pak Hok Pai (Tibetan White Crane) and Hop Ga (Knight / Hero Family). I would suggest that Chan Tai-San’s “Lama Pai” was what he considered to be the best available material, rather than a concern for a particular “tradition”.

If you ever had a chance to see Chan Tai-San perform, or have seen any of the sets he taught, you might have also noticed that at times his various methods bled together. That is, you’ll see in his Lama Pai some of his Choy Lay Fut. And in his Choy Lay Fut, you saw some of his Lama Pai. And you’d also see bits of his Bahk Mei (Pak Mei / White Eyebrow), Hung Kyuhn and Mok Ga. Some might consider this some sort of “blasphemy” but, again, in Chan Tai-San’s school this was the norm. Sifu Chan taught what he felt was the best methods, he had virtually no interest in things like “purity”.

Watch the clip above, it’s a very common Choy Lay Fut tactics. “Pon Sau” (also known as “Poon Sau”) into “Chaap Choih”. It is something every single one of Chan Tai-San’s students, including those like me who were supposed to be Lama Pai lineage, learned. If you’re a Choy Lay Fut person, or seen a lot of Choy Lay Fut, you might notice that Chan Tai-San did NOT use the extended knuckle fist that 99% of Choy Lay Fut schools teach! People, including Chinese instructors, had asked Chan Tai-San about this? Was it something from his special lineage? NO, based upon his real life fight experience, Chan Tai-San just didn’t believe in the extended knuckle formation! So, basically, “to hell with tradition” this method works better.

Baai Si 2

Many students in the Chinese martial arts are told that if you get the opportunity to “Baai Si” (be formally adopted), it is very serious. And you can only do it with ONE TEACHER! Would it surprise you if I told you Chan Tai-San had done Baai Si with several teachers? Are you sensing a trend here?


In the 16 years I trained with Chan Tai-San, the method he taught me, his method, was a result of studying with numerous teachers, tested in real fights, and with decisions made based upon effectiveness and having the right “answers” to all the problems of fighting. Chan Tai-San was born, raised and trained in mainland China, but he also embraced non-Chinese methods like western boxing and Japanese Judo. While they were not necessarily part of his personal method, he told us frequently he respect Karate and Filipino knife fighting as well (he stayed in the Philippines for several months after leaving China in the 1980’s).

Chan Tai San inside grip

This is all to say, nothing that my teacher taught me, nor anything in his behavior or actions, discouraged me in any way from continuing to train, from cross training and from making my own decisions about how to teach my students. In fact, they ENCOURAGED me to continue to develop my methods and to look at things with a critical eye. So when people talk to me about “traditon” I have to ask, what is “tradition”? And why should I care about it?


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