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The Adventures of an American JKD Teacher in China

The call came while I was out. When I got home, my wife said someone had phoned from China. They wanted me to teach a martial arts seminar. At first, I didn’t believe her. Then an e-mail came from Xiaoxiang Vocational School, which was trying to establish a jeet kune do curriculum. Access to Bruce Lee’s art in China was limited, but he remains popular there, with statues being erected and a nightly TV show called The Legend of Bruce Lee. I didn’t reply right away; instead, I forwarded the message to my sifu, Ted Wong.

Another call came — it was Julie, a translator for the school. She asked if I’d travel to Hunan province at their expense to train and possibly certify a group of hand-picked martial artists. Questions flooded my mind. How long would it take? What would the culture be like? Could I even use chopsticks? More e-mails and calls … they wanted me for three months. My opening bid was one month, and we settled on two. I decided that because people were calling me from the other side of the planet, I’d surrender my day job and focus on my passion, the martial arts. I packed one carry-on, forgot about buying a Minnesota fishing license, kissed the wife goodbye and hopped on a plane.

Job One
“Fitness is No. 1.” Wong had told me that, claiming it was a direct quote from Lee. Now I found myself saying it to a group of 15 men and women in their 20s and early 30s. They’d trained in tai chi or Shaolin kung fu or taekwondo. They were the most flexible group I’d ever worked with, but were they ready for the combative conditioning that goes into making a modern fighter?

“One minute of squats, one minute of push-ups, one minute of crunches, three minutes of shadowboxing,” I said. “Go!” Julie translated. No one moved. A man nicknamed John asked a question, and they all nodded. “They want to know what a ‘crunch’ is,” she said. “Half a sit-up,” I explained. This time, they moved. The taekwondo black belts seemed to do the best, but some had trouble completing the conditioning routine, which I did along with them. Then we stretched, which was something I needed more than they did. Next came the technical stuff. I demonstrated the straight punch, the backbone of JKD, along with the rear cross, the hook kick (often called the roundhouse), the side kick and the backfist. Everything, I explained, revolved around the footwork, just like in boxing and fencing. I showed them more: push step, side step, shuffle, pivot. Move in, move out, angle in, retreat. “You can use both gravity and muscle,” I said, “yin and yang.”

We established a wish list for the group to get through in two months. Week one had been the on-guard position and footwork, week two, basic punches and kicks. In week three, the group moved into defense: slipping, bobbing and weaving, and parrying. In the fourth week, we added trapping and chi sao (sticky hands) but then quickly returned to the focus, which was hitting and kicking. They struggled, as all students seem to, with the nontelegraphic nature of the straight punch. I explained via Jerry, another translator, that this was normal.

More basic drills and trading blows. “Don’t get caught in no man’s land,” I would tell them, unsure if it even translated. I’d crammed some Mandarin into my vocabulary on the flight over but not much. That was OK. My one-inch punch translated nicely. A kicking shield held tightly to the chest would protect them, as would the mats if they hit the ground. Many did. It was, I explained, not chi but physics. Lee was big into physics and the science of training the body. I simply leveraged all my weight behind my knuckles and drove my fist forward in a straight line, compounding it with torque from my hips and shoulders and enhancing all that with pivoting footwork.

They caught on quickly, especially Lucy. Lightweight as she was, the torque of her hips and straightness of her line of fire translated into real-world power. But could she apply that power in a fight? Combining distancing skills with footwork is what makes a technique like a jab or kick effective, but without killer instinct, nothing will work in a fight. One of the women, Debbie, had just such an instinct. A kickboxing champ and P.E. instructor, she had sinewy arms and could go half an hour on the heavy bag. Sparring with her, I found my hand skills adequate against her body and hook punches, but her lead side kick tagged my knee several times. I did put her to the mat while there, but she never got me down. Great — because I’d watched her dump man after man to the mat, often scoring a quick submission.

During the week, classes took place in downtown Loudi, but on the weekends, the action shifted to Xiaoxiang. We trained at its Bruce Lee Center, which featured heavy bags, universal gyms, free weights and even two mook jong wooden dummies for hand-trapping drills. Each wall of the facility featured framed photos of Lee and the men who’d trained with him: Taky Kimura, Dan Inosanto, Daniel Lee, Richard Bustillo and others. I made it a point to bow in toward the wall devoted to Wong.

Enter the Diet
The Chinese are big on meals. I managed to avoid a large breakfast, opting instead for a banana or orange followed by yogurt and juice. Training 9 a.m. to noon, I didn’t want a full stomach. Lunches were different. There was an abundance of rice, noodles, soup, egg or beef dumplings, beef and pork dishes, fish, shrimp or crawfish, and chicken, along with a multitude of vegetables. Fortunately, there was a three-hour gap before the teaching began again at 3 p.m. They suggested a nap after lunch, but I often went out on the apartment patio and caught some rays. This alarmed them because the Chinese normally avoid the sun.

Dinner was similar to lunch: Start with soup for digestive health, eat a bit of everything on the table spooned onto your rice and finish with slices of watermelon or mango. Afterward, my host and I would wash down everything with tea. His wife translated as we discussed the current state of martial arts in America and China.
Subtracting processed foods, cheese and coffee from my diet while adding training hours, my 5-foot-9-inch frame went from 174 pounds to 158. It felt great. Gazing into the mirror each morning, I could see my face was thinning and my muscle definition improving. How far could a 50-year-old take it? Who knew?

After several weeks, I took a break and traveled by train to the tourist city of Fenghuang. Accompanied by a sifu, we shopped, hiked, rafted, climbed and took an amazing cave tour. We also visited a Shaolin training camp. At night, it was relaxing to step out on the balcony of the hotel and gaze over the river, watching vendors hawk their wares along the banks. Three days later, I returned to Loudi on the night train, not really rested but ready to tackle my duties again.

Walking On
By week five, everyone had absorbed the basics. Now we could focus on skill development. The kicking shields, focus mitts, and sparring and reaction drills came in handy. Slip that jab, follow up with a counter. Bob and weave under that hook punch, come back with a cross. Follow up with a hook kick. Move away. Don’t get caught in no man’s land. Lead in strong and then, once inside, use short hooks and uppercuts, retreat with a backfist or hook kick, but retreat quickly. The focus mitts were used offensively to give the drills a realistic feel, and the students delighted in slapping at each other if someone stayed on the inside too long.
Although JKD is mainly a stand-up art, no one can deny the effectiveness of grappling. So we hit the mats for several afternoons, working in a few ground-conditioning drills along with the basics of positioning. With limited time, we transitioned quickly into chokes and armbars, plus a leg lock or two. Back on our feet, we did the single- and double-leg scoop, side shoulder lock and osoto gari, the outside leg sweep of judo.

One afternoon in the studio, I noticed a heavy bag lying on the mat. I walked to it and flipped it over. I kept flipping it all the way down the 100 feet of the mat. “What are you doing?” Julie asked. “Showing how some mixed martial artists do conditioning,” I said. I was breathing heavy, sweating profusely in the humid, 90-degree air. “Now, who wants to flip the thing back?” I asked. A big guy named James volunteered. Later in the day, he sparred with me and took me to the mat, where I reverse-choked him from the guard. A couple more sessions, I knew, and he’d be choking me out.

More than anything else, it was my willingness to get in there with the students and train with them, spar with them and do conditioning with them that seemed to garner the most respect. And I was indebted to them — for their hospitality and for the dedication they showed to Lee’s art. I discovered that the students’ strengths included kicking, flexibility, toughness and the ability to keep covered in the on-guard position. They had problems, however, with the straight punch. Getting this fencing-inspired tool to be nontelegraphic is always challenging, and I didn’t need a translator to understand the growing frustration. They’d do hundreds of reps, then grab a partner and focus mitt and practice the punch as the holder pulled the mitt away. The holder would watch the shoulder, lead foot, hand and face. This type of training can work if it interrupts the normal signal coming from the brain long enough to override instinctive movement.

They also had difficulties with the Single Direct Attack, or SDA. It’s described in Lee’s writing as the Simple Angle Attack, or SAA. As a teaching method, it works to simply define it by footwork: “If your leading attack uses straight-ahead footwork, think of it as SDA. If you angle in, call it SAA. Simple.” But simple doesn’t always mean easy. I had them hold the focus mitts at different angles to distinguish which was which. Of course, the ultimate idea is to develop a better method to attack the opponent, de-emphasizing the label.

Finishing Moves
With the end in sight, we started the evaluation process. There’s always the technical aspect — how well a martial artist performs moves on a focus mitt, on a kicking shield or heavy bag, and while sparring. But there’s also an “attitude” aspect, the personal makeup of the student’s energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and interest. By this time, we’d logged 300 hours of training. My analysis of the group led me to three top candidates — Debbie, John and Ronnie — as potential instructors. During the last week, they and I taught a two-day seminar for kung fu enthusiasts from all over China, and having them help indicated that I’d made good choices. All three were awarded instructor certificates.

My trip to Hunan culminated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s new gym. The crowd was treated to a team nunchaku demo followed by the JKD trainees demonstrating their expertise. I was anxious to return home, but I knew I’d miss the culture, the food, the architecture, the shops and markets, even the traffic. But mostly, I realized I’d miss the friendship of the people I’d encountered there. The Chinese apparently felt the same way, for they invited me back for the 70th anniversary of Lee’s birth.

About the Author:
Michael Rutter studied judo, tang soo do and wing chun before being introduced to jeet kune do at the 1993 AIKIA Radford University JKD Weekend. Certified by Ted Wong, he teaches privately in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

To learn more about Bruce Lee’s martial art of jeet kune do, check out the newly expanded edition of the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, the most influential martial arts book ever published! Explore the philosophy behind Lee’s art with digitally enhanced hand-drawn illustrations by the “Little Dragon.” In addition to updated translations, the expanded Tao of Jeet Kune Do provides clearly framed training aids and exercises for easy referencing. This edition of Lee’s book also features a brief history of Tao of Jeet Kune Do and its source materials, along with new contributions from many of Lee’s closest friends and colleagues.

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