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"Traditonal" and "Modified"

by Robert Chu

What is "Traditional" and "modified"? These are words we hear often in Wing Chun, and often these are terms to denote a difference in style. For example, Bruce Lee taught "modified Wing Chun", which he called Jun Fan Gung Fu, and others in Wing Chun, teach what is called "Traditional" or "Original" Wing Chun. These terms can be confusing, at best. Even cars are "traditional" and "modified". They are "traditional" in the sense that they are based on time tested principles, but are constantly being "modified" with every new model year. The Ford Focus certainly inherited a legacy from the Model-T, but will certainly smoke the "original" in every way imaginable, except in age and value.

In Chinese culture, Chinese often seek to differentiate themselves by saying that their martial art, medicine, cooking or whatever skill is "secret" or "original" or "orthodox" or "Passed down in secret from ancestors, demigods, saints, monks, holymen", but often these are mere forms of marketing and puffery. Chinese culture reeks with claims like these. In the West, from time to time, we also see this "marketing scheme". For example, a laundry commercial once had a scenario of a Chinese hand laundry patron asking the shopkeeper the secret to his getting clothes so bright and clean. His answer? "Ancient Chinese Secret!" Of course, at the end of the commercial, we realize that it is the advertised laundry cleaner and a washing machine. The patron and the shopkeeper's wife sarcastically chime to the shopkeeper, "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?!"

And so it is for many martial arts, as well. They differentiate themselves by telling everyone they're the best because they are the original and traditional and that everyone else is modified and giving you their own interpretation of it. I hope people in today's world realize puffery when they see it and often look beyond it, looking at the relative merits of any claims before falling for them. If an advertised product does not bring results and perform, then "secret" or not, consumers will not buy that product, at least until the "new and improved" version comes along. At least here in the West, those who don't fall for "older" may fall for "new and improved", whereas in China, "older and secret" is the ad pitch of generations. Advertising does allow for different forms of "puffery".
But I am here to tell you that "modification" is a part of "tradition", even in Ancient China. For example, in Zhang Zhong Jing's Shang Han Lun (Discussion of injury by cold), a classic text of Chinese medicine, we Chinese herbalists derive a good 73% of the herbal formulas used today. Zhang always spoke of formula modification in his book according to the circumstances he saw in the clinic. In other words, "modification" is a part of "tradition". If you look at a patient, you have to have a starting point, and that is what a base formula is for, but with modification, you can apply it correctly in clinic for an ailment. Zhang wrote in his book that we must modify the "traditional" herbal formulas based on patient and circumstance, weather and season, body type and constitution, for a specific purpose, body part, and other signs and symptoms. So it is the same with Wing Chun, or other martial arts.

Any martial art has it's traditional forms, salutations, techniques and base applications, and also has it's "clinic" where adaptation and modification is encouraged through exercises like push hands, sticking hands and sparring. This is the means to develop the art fully. Students should have a strong traditional base, then learn to modify and apply the right movements at the right time. All martial arts should take into practice five major areas of study of tools, structure, timing, positioning and sensitivity. The first two area of tools and structure are your "traditional", and the last three, timing, positioning and sensitivity are your "modifying" factors.
When I see ads for patented "Dit Da Jow" (Fall and Hit Wine - used for contusions) of Leung Jan's (or Shaolin's or other famous master's or institution's) traditional recipe, I am concerned. Which traditional recipe is it, according to which patient and circumstance, weather and season, body type and constitution? And for what specific purpose? For what part of the body is it used for? I also wonder if the person selling the herbal Rx puts on a warning that certain people (i.e. pregnant women) should avoid using the medicine internally or externally. As an herbalist, I would expect that my ancestor, Leung Jan would know the modification of traditional herbal treatments as well, and not try to fit a square peg in a round hole for every circumstance. As for marketing, there is always a person who just wants to make a quick buck. I still ask the consumer to beware of "Snake oil" dealers whether in martial arts or in traditional Chinese medicine.

At any rate, within the scope of traditional, there is a degree of modification, and that we should avoid any rigid minded thinking. The truth is that in the "traditional", we have to have a degree of "modification" to fit in with the situation on hand. And in the "modified", we must have a strong basis in the "traditional" to know what we are modifying. Neither entity can exist in itself.

 

 

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