There are those who operate tai chi schools and other martial arts schools and are secretive about who they, themselves, trained with. This makes it difficult for students and peers to assess the legitimacy of the teacher. Such secrecy will often be seen as cause enough to avoid that school altogether, for the same reason that you wouldn’t trust a doctor who was secretive about his education.
There are some very good reasons for a teacher to not declare their lineage, however. And some very famous teachers have been cagey about identifying their own teachers to others.
The great master of Baguazhang, Dong Haiquan, who taught in the Imperial palace and served as a personal bodyguard to the Empress Dowager of the late Qing Dynasty, was elusive about the identity of his teacher. In his book, “The Power of Internal Martial Arts”, Kumar Frantzis describes the kind of circular answer that Dong Hai Chuan may have given:
” Question: Where did you learn it?
Answer: I learned it in the mountains.
Q: Who did you learn it from?
A: I learned it from a Daoist.
Q: What was his name?
A: He was a very old man.
Q: Where did he come from?
A: He lived in the mountains.”
Dong may have been protecting his teacher from being besieged by unsuitable students. If his teacher was a Daoist hermit, Dong may simply have been protecting his teacher’s privacy. On the other hand, Dong may have been protecting information about his own shadowy past. It has been suggested that Dong had a criminal history and become a Daoist monk in order to avoid the law, and that was how he met the Daoist teacher.
But while Dong Haichuan and other teachers, both historical and current, are reluctant to advertise their educational history, the facts cannot be hidden indefinitely. Close students of Dong, for instance, did know that their Sigong (grandmaster) was a Daoist hermit named Bi Cheng Xia. (see Liu Bin’s Zhuang Gong Bagua Zhang by Zhang Jie with Richard Shapiro.)
So, I do believe that there can be legitimate reasons for a teacher to withhold information about their lineage. However, there are some pretty weak excuses that teachers give. And I get them when teachers submit their school information to the World Tai Chi Directory.
One of the excuses that I have a problem with is made by teachers who do not advertise their teacher’s because they don’t want to be a name-dropper. I know that there is a certain logic to this. Some teachers might feel that by saying that they learned from a famous master, they would be expected to represent that teacher’s high standard. Some may feel incapable of doing so, even though they still have something of value to give.
In one case, an instructor who did not want his teachers’ names listed in the directory was a matter of true humility. At first I suspected that he was hiding his lack of credentials. But on further investigation, I discovered that he had studied extensively with some of the world’s great masters. In this case, he was encouraged to list at least some of his main teachers.
It may also be that the teacher has developed their own curriculum to the degree that it no longer resembles their teacher’s style. They may think that they would be offending their teacher by claiming him as a teacher, or that the teacher might have to take the blame for inadequacies of the new style. But even if you declare your own style, it is still wise to credit your teachers with your early development.
My good friend, Adam Chan, trained for decades in a variety of related internal systems and developed a training and teaching system so unique that he could no longer use traditional terminology to describe it. He got so tired of trying to explain what he taught that he finally (after consulting with his teachers) declared his own style. At first he called it “Long Ha Kuen” (Lobster Fist) and told stories about how his grandfather had been a fisherman who developed the style after witnessing a fight between two lobsters. Now he calls it Kai Yin Kung Fu. He is always careful to credit the people who helped to get him to where he is today. (In my opinion, he is one of the top 20 practical martial artists of his generation.)
I list all of my teachers on my website, including those with whom I have only taken a couple of seminars. This is a simple matter of courtesy. (As the Chinese saying goes, “If you are my teacher for one day, you are my teacher for life.”) Even those who taught me for just a few minutes have given me information that I could work on for years.
It is also a show of respect toward my students. They have a right to know where the information comes form, and whether I am teaching something that comes from a traditional source or if I just pulled it out of the ether myself. They don’t want to be embarrassed by finding out that the form they are performing isn’t a traditional taijiquan at all, but rather a Vulcan dance imagined by a caucasian nerd from “cottage country”.
That is also why, when I teach a particular concept in my classes, I do my best to reference my sources. I say, “This idea came to me from…”
As martial artists, it is helpful for us to declare our influences as a matter of polite introduction. It is like a traveller saying where you come from, so that people will understand you better. (A Canadian friend of mine got perplexed looks when she entered an English store on a rainy day and asked for “waterproof pants.” She had lost her Canadian accent by this time, and the Brits had no idea that she wasn’t talking about rubber undergarments or some bizarre breathing difficulty. She caught her mistake and said “Trousers! I mean waterproof trousers!
It is my experience that many teachers who do not declare their lineage tend to appear secretive and insecure about their own credentials. It is like a doctor or lawyer refusing to tell you what school they graduated from. In such an instance one might wonder if they graduated at all.
If a teacher does not have their lineage on their website or advertising, it may be that they are afraid of word getting back to their teachers that they are claiming a lineage they don’t deserve. In some rare cases, such fears may be justified. But in most cases, the teachers will appreciate the acknowledgement, even if they don’t remember the student’s name.
I have learned of people I don’t remember claiming me among their teachers. I don’t remember teaching them. But they remember me. I see that as a compliment, just so long as they don’t claim certification that I did not award them. (Like that former acupuncturist in Vancouver who misspelled the name of the university on his diploma.)
Ultimately, the legitimacy of a teacher will be determined, in the student’s mind, by the satisfaction they achieve from the training they receive. The satisfaction of the students will go a long way toward satisfying the honour of the lineage.
Even when a student has been expelled or disowned by his or her teacher, they will continue to acknowledge where they studied, and the teacher will not deny it. In fact, they would be hard-pressed to do so.
I joked with my teacher that when I competed in a tournament, I would say he was my teacher only if I won. If I lost, I would claim that I learned from his students’ videos. Master Liang then told of being greeted as “teacher” by a person he did not recognise. When Teacher Liang apologised for not recognising the student, the student explained that they had learned from him by watching his TV show.
I’m sure there are reasons for some people to avoid declaring their lineage. In a world with complex politics, it may be unsafe for some to state who their teachers are. There could concerns of political persecution, prejudice, or even privacy. One teacher of Filipino martial arts, and a good friend of mine, was getting phone calls and emails from around the world day and night. So he had to change his number and tell his friends to clear their websites of any reference to him that might allow strangers to find out where he lives.
If you are a teacher, and you submit your school or study group to the World Tai Chi Directory, I would hope that you could include the names of your teachers for your profile. If you can’t, I will accept that. I will, in the future, put “N.T.B.D.” for “Not To Be Disclosed.” People will be justifiably suspicious of you at first. But if you are good at what you do, that won’t matter. Some of the greatest masters had no teachers at all. (Although most people who have no teacher never become great masters.)