Individuality vs. Unanimity

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Individuality vs. Unanimity: The Right Mentality for Martial Arts Training

Written March 20th, 2014

“Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.” — Bruce Lee, Actor, Martial Artist, and the Founder of Jeet Kune Do

The time is exactly 2:00 am (Eastern Time, US & Canada) at the time of this writing, when I begin my opening with this write-up, and I’m in a reflective mood right now.  When it comes to reflecting on how to fulfill the role of a martial artist, one question has to inevitably asked, either implicitly or explicitly: “How do you train?”  More specifically, what is the kind of mentality one has during the training?  Because it’s one thing to be able to pick up a physical technique or movement from a style, but a more distinctive contemplation is how one defines and interprets his or her own practice.

Traditional martial artists, who spend their time and dedication training one particular martial arts style, build up a strong specialized foundation in that style, mostly to the exclusion of all other styles.  Conversely, modern day “martial artists” can be said to “do their own thing”, not sticking to one particular foundation to consistently build upon; this observation includes the majority of mixed martial artists and trickers as well.  Such a mentality can easily be stemmed from the quotes of a well-known martial arts household name—Bruce Lee.  Bruce Lee has been quoted as saying that “the individual, is always more important than any established style or system.”  Joe Lewis, former kickboxing champion, Karate stylist, and a student of Bruce Lee, also said, “…people to me are more important than martial arts.”  I agree and disagree with both of these quotes.

Before I continue, let me preface this by saying I am fully aware that both of these men are considered experts in their respective foundational styles.  Bruce Lee in particular was and still is a childhood idol of mine, and I especially extol the values and ideas that Bruce Lee has helped to spread in the world of modern martial arts.  These individuals have much more experience than I, and in no way would I dare refute anything they say based on my own experience, as their respective quotes have some validity from my humble perspective.  In terms of having to train on your own and reaching a higher level of skill that only the individual must seek out to achieve by themselves, I agree.  However, in my humble, young, inexperienced opinion, I am inclined to say that on a formal learning standpoint, I disagree.  So the big question I will tackle for this write-up will be, “Which mentality for training is better, individuality or unanimity?”  For me, the answer is, it depends on the situation.  When it comes to finding what does and does not work on a higher level of practice for an individual, individuality is of course best.  But when it comes to fully learning a foundation that one is not completely familiar with, unanimity is required.  While this write-up applies to martial arts training in general, I will specifically be addressing modern or contemporary Wushu, a standardized method of teaching Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes, as my main subject, as that is the martial arts style I am most familiar with.

I am of the opinion that when it comes to serious, formal training in a specific style, a serious instructor is needed, especially when it comes to starting out.  When I say formal training, I am referring to the consistent training under a senior individual, ideally a formal instructor.  In the case of modern Wushu, instructors are known as coaches, given Wushu’s sportive nature.  Regardless, a coach or instructor is ideally able to pick up and see the flaws and mistakes that you as a student can’t see yourself, point out those flaws to you, and most importantly, show you how to correct those flaws.  This kind of learning process cannot be easily replicated training by oneself.  After all, if we could perfectly pick up all the things that we wanted to without formal instruction, we would all be experts in those things by now.  In this case, the first step in being able to train by way of formal instruction and practice is being able to accept another value in martial arts on a personal level—humility.  Understand that you are learning from a teacher because you do not know everything about what you are learning right now.  And sometimes, you will have to learn from others, who are better at certain things than you, if you want to improve on those certain things.  If you are in a studio or club environment, you will have to lower yourself to the level of the other students around you, regardless of experience or skill level, to learn from a common teacher.  Thus, individuality takes a backseat to unanimity in formal training.


In the case of modern Wushu, which is divided into two disciplines, Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) and Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), athletes typically train in groups, specifically teams.  In China’s case, these teams are divided categorically into national, provincial, regional, school or university, general skill level, age, and gender teams.  Aside from the supporting the individual alone, it is interesting to note that the whole team typically shows spirit not only for the collective group, but that which they represent.  Taolu athletes who train in specific types of group-oriented events, such as duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets) or jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets) require unanimity most of all.  This is not the same as the optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) Taolu event, which only concerns one individual athlete that is performing alone.  Because these are group-oriented events, the ability to perform at a high level in these events requires the abilities of more than one person.  For duilian, which is typically limited to either two to three people in an event, each involved athlete in the group must be fully aware of each other’s, speed, power, restraint, and most important of all, timing.  For jiti, it is important that all these aforementioned aspects be held at a flat constant which the whole group can easily meet, but again, timing is most important.  For a good group performance, the main focus should be highlighting the synchronized aspects of the collective group, rather than the standout skills of one individual.  In these cases of Taolu training, unanimity trumps individuality.

Even some degree of unanimity applies in Sanda as well.  Sanda training emphasizes sparring above all other things, and because sparring requires the participation of more than one person, unanimity is required in the same way as group Taolu events.  Much like other combat sports, Sanda specifically focuses on full-contact, hand-to-hand sparring against a singular opponent.  Training in this manner is based on the theory of building one individual’s attack and defense skills against only one other attacking and defending individual.  Outside of actual sparring, exercises such as practicing strikes with pads, or drilling specific techniques and combinations all require the active participation of at least one other person, with the exception of shadowboxing.  Quality training with a partner in sparring, much like duilian in Taolu, requires awareness of speed, power, restraint, and timing of the other individual, not just one’s own, albeit with a focus towards actual, not choreographed, sparring.  Thus, sparring training is dependent on the other person; training solo simply won’t get the job done.  In actual training, the individual alone is not enough.  A training partner is almost always required, as he or she is the arguably the most important tool you can have in sparring training.  As such, sparring partners should be given the adequate respect they deserve in the role that they play in training, and this also means having unanimity over individuality.


While having unanimity in formal training is no doubt important, this is not to say that individuality is not equally as important.  Being able to express yourself through martial arts has always been a key value to practicing martial arts.  In Wushu, traditional ideas like jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén, vitality and intention behind movements) and shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”), should apply to every practitioner of Taolu.  However, these concepts, namely shenfa, will be interpreted differently by each particular individual, as everybody moves and physically expresses themselves differently, regardless of whether or not they are executing the same movements.  Also, it is up to each individual to experiment on their own and find what specifically works for them when they reach a higher level of practice.

In an earlier write-up, “Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, I stated that imitating another’s movements, while a great way to learn and get a better sense of higher level of practice, is not enough.  Imitation can only take you so far, and if we’re going to preserve the ideal of individuality in Wushu, an effort needs to be made to be creative all on our own.  This individual creativity should be based on the knowledge of what you can and can’t do well.  What works best for someone else won’t necessarily work for you, because everybody has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.  Acknowledging our own strengths and weaknesses, and ideally being able bring out our strengths while simultaneously covering up our weaknesses, is the first step in being able to build up a sense of individuality.  This especially applies to Taolu athletes who compete in optional events.  A coach cannot specifically relate you what a physical rhythm feels like; they might tell you or even show you for the sake of imitation, but in the end this feeling must be experienced, and this depends solely on the dedicated focus of the self.

In Sanda, the idea of individuality should also be important.  As in all other combat disciplines, sparring situations in Sanda matches happen on a case-by-case basis.  If you’re fighting, you won’t always have the same kind of opponent.  What happens when you face an opponent that is larger and has a longer reach than you, and you’ve never sparred with this kind of opponent before?  And furthermore, what worked for someone else in one kind of situation may not necessarily work for you in the same situation.  For example, Cung Le, a former US Sanshou athlete and current mixed martial artist, has been able to consecutively execute spinning kicks and avoid being taken down at the same time for the majority of his competitive MMA (mixed martial arts) career.  This is due to his experience in Taekwondo and collegiate wrestling, a combination that is almost exclusive to him; he is able to do these things because they work for him, and not anybody else.  There has been mention of Sanshou fighters trying to copy the same techniques that Cung Le has done, but this is folly.  You’d be hard-pressed to be able to do what Cung Le does, because, put simply and plainly, you are not Cung Le.  Each fighter has their own attributes and their own experiences that are different from others, which they ideally should be able to make work for themselves, rather than work off of what another fighter does.  Individuality is just as crucial in high-level sparring as it is in forms work.

As I close up this reflection, I return to the central question for this write-up, “Which mentality for training is better, individuality or unanimity?”  Again, this depends.  Both have their merits in training, but only in specific contexts.  In formal training and practice, unanimity must come first, especially at a beginner level.  But when approaching and trying to attain a higher level of skill, individuality should be valued.  This is not to say that either mentality of training is better than the other, but rather that they are exclusively important at different situations and levels of practice, and should be prioritized respectively.  It is important to know which mentality is best at certain times, and when they should applied in various training situations.