At a certain time in one’s teaching career or even in one’s personal practice an important question will surface. The question is do you maintain, that is keep the status quo or do you evolve, change with the times. Or perhaps have a bit of both.
A traditionalist will insist on the status quo, keep everything unchanged. That’s admirable, however, such thinking ignores the fact that no system existed unchanged from Day 1 in the first place. If anything, every system started from the seed of an idea, an experience, a need which over time the compiled, tested, and consolidated knowledge was organized to become a system.
Even then chances are this system did not become encased in stone, unchanged intact as it was. To claim that this is so ignores the fact that it is impossible to learn everything that a teacher passed down or even if it is possible, to learn it with the same understanding and this is true even within the same family over several generations. This is due to the fact that each person’s intelligence, physical attributes and life experience will differ. You can approximate a similar level of understanding but never an exact understanding. Well, maybe if you have a clone of yourself this might be possible.
Because of this a system will change. Whether for better or worse is a different question. Take for example, an art that is steeped in tradition – Hung Gar. Can you say that the art has remained unchanged? From what I read the famous Wong Fei Hung added in the Tiger Crane form. Wong taught a number of disciples, one of the most famous is Lam Sai Wing. I read that Lam added in more knowledge to the system and also changed the basic stance. Despite changing the transmitted knowledge Lam’s version of Hung Gar is widely disseminated.
So whether changes are a bad thing or a good thing would depend on how we look at it. I think one question we can ask is whether the changes can help a student learn better and learn faster. I mean what good is tradition if you get stuck in the knowledge and take too long a time to master it. I am not saying that you can master an art without spending time to practice. You can’t. But it is not uncommon to see practitioners spend a long time with a system and end up still not getting it. Then we have to ask whether this is due to lack of practice or a problem with the teaching.
Sometimes a system has to change whether it wants to or not. Every system is a by-product of the founder’s need to address a problem. For example, if arts such as ground grappling, handguns or knives were common back then in China perhaps the system of say, Wing Chun, that we see today will look different, feel different and have techniques that are different. A “traditional” Wing Chun practitioner may argue that facing an opponent squarely is best but I wonder if this opinion will still hold once he faces an attacker with a live blade. Similarly, no Wing Chun practitioner today, or at least, those in their right mind would fight an MMA fighter facing squarely because that is a surefire recipe to be taken down to the ground.
So arts can evolve. When a famous master does it we praise him for being enlightened and forward looking. But when a student adapts it to his needs he is condemned instead. The message here is that every practitioner who wants to be able to use his chosen art would look to those techniques and principles that can work for him given his limitations, time and place. Certain principles are the same or similar regardless of style, system or the times that we live in. But others are relatable to the situation at hand.
For example, when you are faced with an attacker slashing and thrusting a knife at you facing him squarely is suicidal because you just gave him a huge area to attack. If you get a Wing Chun practitioner telling you that this is not true then ask him to try it against a 1-year FMA practitioner and see the outcome. It is common to be blinded to our own weaknesses because we have never see how the picture is from the other side. This is why every art has its strong points and weaknesses that makes it workable against certain type of attacks but not to others. Understanding what you lack or not seeing is what elevates your ability to use your art if you ever need it.