A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Mass Marketing of the Martial Arts
by Christopher Dow
Bruce Tegnér might have been the first martial artist to take advantage of all the multiple avenues available to mass market his product, but he was quickly followed by others. There’s no way I can be comprehensive here since there are far too many martial artists, schools, associations, and companies out there to make a complete survey, so I’ll be selective, using several prime examples. Right at the outset, let me make it clear that I've chosen these examples because they illustrate my point, not because I think that the people I'll talk about are somehow inferior martials artists. They are not—each is a high-level practitioner.
The first is Lee Ying-arng (1933–1988). Like Tegnér, Lee had a relatively short life, but despite that, his background was quite impressive. He studied from childhood under a succession of famous masters of the Chinese martial arts, most notably for Tai Chi Chuanists, becoming a senior student under Yang Chen-fu. (3) Over time, Lee developed his own Yang-based style: Lee’s Modified Tai Chi, with which he sought to create a balanced form. A few of the better-known practitioners of the internal martial arts who derived some of their training through Lee’s lineage are Ro-Z Mendelson and Darryl Mendelson, both of whom studied directly with Lee’s senior student, Dr. Fred Wu, and Richard Clear, who studied under Wu’s senior student Tyrone Jackson. (1,2)
Also like Tegnér, Lee published a significant number of books—eleven—on the Chinese martial arts, though only a handful have appeared in English. (See the accompanying illustration.) Thankfully, these are probably his more important books. These books were published mostly from the early 1960s through the 1970s. He did not self-publish or self-distribute as Tegnér did, but he did feature ads in the back pages of his books selling his other books and products like Lee’s Liniment—da dit jow, most likely—touted as a cure for muscle aches and bruises. He also was president of the Hong Kong Acupuncture Reseach Center, which taught several acupuncture courses, also advertised in his books. (See accompanying illustrations.)
More to the point of advancing the mass marketing of the martial arts, Lee produced several short 8mm black-and-white films demonstrating various aspects of his art, especially Tai Chi and kicking techniques. (See the accompanying illustration.) I don’t know that he was the first to do this, but we should be glad he did, because these films are quite remarkable. And no, you don’t have to have the film reels and a projector to view them—they have been linked together in a pair of YouTube videos. Lee’s performance of his modified Yang Style is ultra-smooth and focused. Following the form demonstration, he demonstrates applications, proving the significant quality of his martial art. The kicking techniques come next on the YouTube videos, and here, too, you can see Lee’s expertise.
These days, you can find a zillion martial arts application videos online, but none are really any better than those on Lee’s films, which must have been produced around 1960. Another remarkable aspect is that the ad for the film states that after the viewers learn as best as they can from the video, they can then film themselves performing the form and send the film to Lee for critique. I don’t know how many folks actually did that, but the offer, itself, was unusual and generous.
So, Lee Ying-arng was, if not the absolute first to offer home-viewing media as a substitute for personal instruction, then among the earliest. Other martial arts instructors soon followed suit. One example is Tai Chi master William C.C. Chen, who advertised a super-8mm film of his Tai Chi in his booklet, William C.C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan (1973). (See illustration.) But as I noted earlier in this series, film was not common, and it could be very difficult to find someone with a projector and the willingness to let a person come into their home to watch martial arts instruction films.
That all changed in the 1980s with the advent of the first ubiquitous home-movie format: video tape. Almost immediately, martial artists began taping themselves performing their forms, imparting instruction, and demonstrating applications. In those early years, martial arts instruction video tapes could easily run $150 or more. That has changed somewhat over time and with the greater proliferation of such videos, and especially with the advent of digital video. DVDs are less time-consuming and a lot easier and cheaper to produce than video tapes. The average price range today of DVDs is from about $20 to about $60, though some run higher. And now, online video services like YouTube have enabled every martial artist on the block to make and present martial arts videos and post video libraries that sometimes require a paid subscription.
Some martial artists have, indeed, produced extensive catalogs of videos. One excellent example is Jiang Jian-ye, who’s online catalog of videos numbers an astounding 286 products! His website also contains information about his school, but otherwise Jiang doesn’t take full advantage of the various media available to day—such as print—nor does he take full advantage of the mass marketing possibilities inherent in todays digital and non-digital media.
One of the more extreme examples of extensive video catalogs is the one produced by Richard Clear. Clear’s pedigree is impecable. As mentioned above, he is in Lee Ying-arng’s lineage, and he also studied with other martial experts, notably Ma Yueh-liang and Wu Ying-hua, then the reigning masters of Wu Family Tai Chi. And watching Clear in action, it’s obvious that he’s rightfully earned his own place among high-level American masters.
The extremeness of Clear’s video catalog is evident not only in the number that he’s produced—well over 100 if you include his on-line videos as well as DVDs—but in their cost. Clear not only knows the real stuff, he has a sincerely open approach to his teaching—if you can actually learn from a DVD—so I don’t knock him for charging appropriately for his knowledge. And professional quality videos aren’t all that cheap to produce, so that has to be taken into account, as well. But most of Clear’s videos go for $180 or more. If you individually bought all the videos comprising “Clear’s Tai Chi Complete Collection,” they would cost you $11,875, though he does sell the collection at a reduced price of $7,499. He also sells “Clear’s Silat Complete Collection,” which if bought separately would run $3,564, but which he sells as a group for $2,299. That’s pretty pricy for DVDs and no personal instruction. He does seminars for about $250 a person for one day or $395 for two days.
Okay, I get that he’s in business to make money from his long-developed expertise. And perhaps charging high prices works toward ensuring that he’s not wasting his time with flighty students trying out Tai Chi to see if they like it. But sincere and talented students aren’t always in a tax bracket that allows them the luxury of spending $10,000 to $15,000 on a bunch of DVDs, no matter what the contents. But maybe that’s the opinion of a poor man. Were I richer, I might buy at least some of his DVDs since Clear is very knowledgable and generous with the information he imparts once you’ve paid the price.
Like Jiang Jian-ye, Richard Clear has focuced on video as his primary media outlet and YouTube videos and a web presence as his primary marketing tools. But neither of them take full advantage of all the media available. For that, we’ll turn to Yang Jwing-ming, who was named by Inside Kung Fu Magazine as one of the most important martial artists of the past century for his significant expertise, contributions to the field, and inherent generosity in divulging important information on many aspects of the martial arts.
Yang also has engaged in one of the most successful and important mass marketing efforts ever seen in the martial arts. With his huge catalog of books (85+ by my count) and videos (about 75 of his own), he’s taken his personal publications efforts to new heights. And his website for YMAA Publication Center goes even farther, offering not just his own books and videos, but a great number by other martial experts of diverse styles. Most of the DVDs sell in the $30–$50 range. The site also advertises martial arts gear and products and features news and articles about the martial arts as well as information on seminars and Yang’s schools.
Over the past thirty years, Yang has created a martial arts empire of the kind that Bruce Tegnér might have developed had he only lived long enough and that encompasses far more than Tegnér could dream of. Tegnér reached his target audience through advertisments in comic books and men’s magazines, which basically limited him to men and boys who lived in the United States. While that wasn’t an insubstantial market at the time, Yang’s website reaches the entire world, and the many YouTube video extracts featuring him have helped increase his visibility. In addition, these days, women are nearly as interested as men in learning some sort of martial art, doubling the demographics of the potential audience. So Yang takes advantage of far more avenues to reach his potential audience than was available to Tegnér, who died just as home video and the Internet were in their nascent stages.
Yang Jwing-ming isn’t the only practitioner to take advantage of the Internet, but he has proved to be one of the more prolific users of all media to get out his message and market his products. But while Yang, like Tegnér, generously imparts information, one of the more important aspects of his efforts is that he operates or endorses approximately sixty schools worldwide. I can’t speak to the quality of all those schools, but apparently, a significant sense of legitimacy permeates all of Yang’s Martial Arts Association, which was established in 1982. To this point is the following from one page of the YMMA website: “This is the official list of active YMAA schools existing in the world today. Any school that is not on this list is not qualified or endorsed by YMAA to teach the YMAA international training system and curriculum. Only schools on this list are official YMAA branch and provisional schools, and there are no exceptions. If you are a YMAA school director and believe that there is an error, please contact us ASAP. Please note that not every qualified YMAA Instructor or YMAA Assistant Instructor necessarily owns a school or is a school director. Click on the Instructors links on the right for full listings.” Clicking on the several links reveals lists of more than two hundred instructors.
I have had personal experience with one of these schools: Yang’s Shaolin Kung Fu in Houston, Texas, which is no longer active. When it was in operation, it was run by Jeff Bolt, one of Yang’s early students and co-author of one of Yang’s early books. Bolt’s personal expertise drew a fairly large number of students to his school, and he then rose to prominence in the mid 1980s when he founded and hosted the United States National Chinese Martial Arts Competitions. This annual competition drew competitors from around the world for more than five years before the organization was disbanded. (More about the USNCMAC HERE.)
That Yang has successfully trained the great number of high-level instructors he has is is an incredible feat worthy of note and indicating both Yang’s expertise as well as his generosity. But even with his martial arts commercial empire and his huge number of instructors and students, Yang, in essence, remains a sort of old-fashioned instructor. He personally visited Bolt’s school many times while it was in operation, and I think he probably makes the rounds of many of his current schools. But his organization is now so massive that it probably couldn’t get much larger without a significant structural change that would take it to another level.
The question is, as martial artists, do we really want to go to that next—corporate—level?
1 “About Clear’s Tai Chi,” Clear’s Tai Chi, http://www.clearstaichi.com/tai-chi-master
2 “Sifu (Teacher),” Monkey’s Retreat Tai Chi & Chi Kung Center, http://www.monkeysretreat.com/Taichi/sifu.html
3 From the dust jacket for The Secret Art of Chinese Leg Manoeuvres by Lee Ying-arng (1976)
4 “YMMA Community: Schools around the World,” YMMA, http://ymaa.com/training/schools