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
The Internet has enabled whole new classes of mass marketing of the martial arts. Before delving into more recent developments, it is necessary to touch on YouTube and other online video sites, not only as a venue for disseminating videos but as a means to mass market an individual’s public offerings, be they classes, books, videos, or clothing and equipment. Certainly, though, the vast majority of online martial arts videos are amateur to semi-professional in nature. By this, I don’t mean the production values, per se, but the levels of expertise of those presenting the material. While many YouTube martial artists clearly know something about the arts they demonstrate, few are in the category of Yang Jwing-ming, Richard Clear, Jiang Jian-ye, or the many other acknowledged masters of the martial arts.
But many of these genuine masters who operate large, often international, organizations and who use various other media to sell their products, also rely on online videos to help promote their offerings. For the most part, such videos are free, though a few require a subscription, but they usually don’t contain a great deal of hard information. Instead, they serve more as teasers to draw prospective students/buyers to websites where products and services can be sold to them.
Another popular visual media to heavily incorporate the martial arts is video games. Video games, however, largely escape specific mass marketing of the martial arts they frequently depict, but only because a video game is intent on mass marketing the game aspect, which has no direct connection to a particular teacher, lineage, or even martial art. But the proliferation of kung fu/karate fighting video games has led to an idea that, were it not so ill-considered, might seem amusingly absurd to those of us who have devoted years or decades to practicing something that is real. This idea is exemplified by an incident that happened to a Tai Chi colleague who was encouraging a teenager to study the martial arts. The teen told my buddy that he already knew kung fu really well since he was expert at martial arts video games. Apparently this isn’t a belief of this one benighted young man but is possibly endemic within the gaming community. As an indicator, consider Enter the Warrior’s Gate, a 2016 film in which, according to the storyline on IMBD, “a teenager is magically transported to China and learns to convert his video game skills into those of a Kung Fu warrior.” (1) Fantasy is fine in its place, but not when a real attack occurs. A real attack requires a real response, and real response requires real training.
But this is off the main track of the discussion, and I want to move back to the means that martial artists of today widely utilize to disseminate their art as a business. I’m going to start by noting that mass marketing of the martial arts is now taking on new and disturbing trends that promise to largely eradicate the old way of teaching: passing information down personally from teacher to student. In this scenario, the teacher monitors the student’s progress and understanding, in part to ensure that the student gains an accurate and deeper understanding of the art involved, and in part to ensure that students are both accurate and ethical in the use of their art. Often such instruction is sensate rather than visual and is impossible to communicate in words or without direct, physical feedback.
But this old way of teaching is rapidly falling by the wayside. In today’s Internet world, we demand instant gratification, and for those who want such an impossible thing from Tai Chi, there’s what I’m going to call Infomercial Martial Arts. This was pioneered in the 1990s by Billy Blanks, who used the medium of infomercials to promoting his Tae Bo. Today’s prime example of Infomercial Martial Arts is Tai Cheng. Tai Cheng’s promotional materials promise mastery in ninety days. “In just ninety days,” states one of the promo videos, “master moves designed to awaken your muscles, dormant power, and increase your body’s natural energy.” Sounds good if it really works. And if you actually practice. And practice correctly.
Tai Cheng is the mastermind of Dr. Mark Cheng, who bills himself as a Tai Chi master and a doctor of sports medicine. His basic course, which costs about $60, though it was originally priced at about twice as much, is marketed through Beachbody, Inc., which bills itself as the largest health and fitness company in America. In other words, it’s a corporation whose sole purpose is to sell you products, whether they’re useful to you or not. Tai Cheng is just one of it’s several fitness programs, and it sells other health and fitness products as well.
My purpose here isn’t to disparage Cheng. He looks fit and energetic, and the online reviews of his Tai Cheng course are mostly in the good-to-exellent range. Many of the negative reviews cite the Beachbody advertisement for other products, such as vitamin supplements, that are peppered throughout the videos. Others note that the course can be slow and boring. Personally, I find watching Tai Chi to be boring, but doing it is not at all so. Maybe the boring aspect of the Tai Cheng videos is the pacing. I can’t say from personal experience since I have not acquired the course materials. I’m not going to spend $60 or more on something I know is too shallow for me after nearly four decades of practice. And after watching a number of his promotional videos on YouTube, I have a few criticisms of my own.
First is the fact that you can’t really learn Tai Chi remotely, especially if you’re a rank beginner. You need a teacher to tell you what’s right and wrong, to adjust your postures, and to impart the precepts. And often, each student needs different and unique input. This entails the kind of feedback that you just can’t get from a teacher who is only a moving image on a TV screen, endlessly repeating the identical information the same way every time. While it is true that the advertisements proclaim that you can get in touch with Cheng or a “qualified instructor” to answer questions, often a student needs the answers to questions he or she doesn’t even know to ask. All this seems symptomatic of a more pervasive problem of contemporary culture. Today, people utilize the Internet, distance learning, and social media instead of engaging in personal interaction. To this point is one of the more important aspects of learning in person with a qualified instructor: the sensation of chi flow. The more powerful chi flow of the instructor can, to some extent, influence the lesser fields of the students, imparting information that is physical but invisible and unteachable via words, photos, or video.
And while Cheng is obviously fit and flexible and his movements smooth and flowing, it doesn’t look to me as if his energy is sunken into his waist and legs. In other words, he looks buff but not sung. His chest protrudes, and his lumbar curve is not straightened. Thus, he doesn’t look like he’s truly sitting into his postures, and he seems to lack the flexible connection between his trunk and hips that is so important to Tai Chi. In one scene, he’s instructing a young woman whose lumbar curve is pronounced, yet he seems intent only on making sure that she’s stepping correctly on the floor grid he supplies with his other course materials. His Tai Chi looks balanced and centered, but without sung, the postures cannot truly generate power or thoroughly produce the healing effects of Tai Chi.
In addition, there is only a limited amount of instruction in chi kung, which is essential in developing the chi and, ultimately, power. To Cheng’s credit, he does talk about abdominal breathing, and he shows specific exercises to teach the student to breath abdominally, but the bent-spine posture of many of the students does not allow them to sit into their root and to actually utilize abdominal breathing throughout the form. They all look top-heavy, which is a fault that an in-person teacher can help correct, but which will probably slip by all those video students out there. That’s one of those questions they don’t know to ask. Tai Cheng, then, seems to be a purely physical exercise. While seasoned Tai Chi players know that the physical exercise aspect, taken alone, is still a pretty good workout, they also understand that those physical movements are nothing but a container one creates with one’s body. The really important aspect isn’t the container, but the chi energy you learn to fill that container with, and that can only happen if one's alignments are correct and the body is sung.
Another complaint of mine is that Cheng’s Tai Chi form is only eighteen movements long. That’s too short, but maybe understandable considering that his target audience seems primarily to be seniors. I know one instructor who teaches an eight-movement Wu-Hao Style Tai Chi at a senior center, and maybe that’s enough for some. Cheng’s advertising materials claim—as have many Tai Chi books and videos since the creation of books and videos—that Tai Chi can be learned by one and all, healthy or sick, young or old. To which I say, BS. In my experience, most people who are older than about 75 and who have done little physical exercise or work during their lives are physically incapable of learning Tai Chi, whether because of poorly supported joints, weak musculature, or stiff tendons. They could benefit from practicing some sort of Tai Chi or chi kung, but the physical learning curve is often too steep for those in advancing age, and they give up.
Further, their capacity to learn new things has been drastically diminished by age, and they have difficulty in remembering how to do the movements, much less remembering how to string them together into a form. And most children younger than the middle-school years don’t have the patience, understanding, or determination to practice Tai Chi on a daily basis. Other people have physical debilities that can inhibit learning or performing Tai Chi. And finally, there is a tremendous percentage of the population who just doesn’t want to learn Tai Chi, maybe because it looks weak and ineffective, because it’s too complex, because daily practice is too demanding, or for whatever reason. For them, learning Tai Chi also is an impossibility. From what I’ve observed, in order to learn Tai Chi, you have to have a minimal physical capability, and you have to want to learn Tai Chi.
And that brings me back to an old criticism of mine: You just can’t learn Tai Chi from a video or book. Those media might serve to enhance your understanding and practice, but you need to learn from a real, live person. In-person classes not only instruct the student in the movements and principles or Tai Chi, they add the kinds of reinforcement for practice that can only be found in observing and participating in the challenges, struggles, and successes of the other students.
Further, I am quite disturbed by this statement from one of Cheng’s promotional videos: “You learn Tai Chi the right way. You’ll never get that from any other Tai Chi video or class out there.” Really, this is such a load of crap. Does Cheng mean that if I personally took Tai Chi classes with Yang Jwing-ming or Richard Clear (assuming I could afford it!) or any other of the thousands of expert Tai Chi practitioners in America today, I would learn the wrong way from each and every one of them? Gosh, if I’d only paid Mark Cheng that $60, I wouldn’t have wasted my time on other teachers, all of whom teach bogus Tai Chi.
Also irking in this regard is his referring to Tai Chi as Tai Cheng, as if he owns it. Well, perhaps he developed the particular sequence he teaches out of Yang Style, but that’s been done by a great many others, and you don’t see them changing the basic name. The Yang family didn’t rename the art Tai Yang, and the Wus didn’t rename it Tai Wu, no matter how they reconfigured the form. As a long-term Tai Chi player, I find myself slightly insulted that, in the name of “branding,” Cheng has grafted his name to this ancient and philosophical art as if he somehow owns it. Tai Chi means the “Grand Ultimate,” so I guess Tai Cheng means the “Grand Cheng,” but doesn’t that leave “chi” out of the equation? And that brings me back to the point that Cheng’s version looks like just a physical exercise that resembles Tai Chi but seems to ignore much of the best of what Tai Chi has to offer.
I’m sorry that I have devolved into such a negative critique of Cheng’s offerings, but I couldn’t help myself. Actually, though, I think he’s probably doing a service for those among his target audience who actually take up the practice of Tai Cheng. Considering its limitations, Tai Cheng does seem to have a solid foundation and is probably quite good for some. To that point, there are a great many more postive reviews of Tai Cheng than negative. It would be of particular value to seniors who can’t or don’t get out much or who can get together in a community or senior center.
But really the best way to really learn Tai Chi is to take a class in person from someone who is relatively proficient. Such teachers are fairly easy to find via an Internet search. Learning from a knowledgeable person in person doesn’t guarantee that the student won’t get a watering down of the art, but that watering down definitely exists in “exercise-only” Tai Chi. I realize that some areas of the country might be poor in Tai Chi resources, but if you’re forced to learn Tai Chi remotely, find a teacher who is reasonably expert, who can clearly demonstrate and explain a complete standard form, such as Yang 108 of Cheng Man-ching's short form, and who sells his or her product at a reasonable rate. You’ll be better served than by learning a truncated and energetically and philosophically incomplete version of Tai Chi. So if you do take up Tai Cheng, don’t think that you’re actually learning Tai Chi, or you’ll be fooling yourself.
Come to think of it, maybe I don’t mind him calling it Tai Cheng after all.
1 Enter the Warrior’s Gate, IMBD,