_There used to be a joke amongst Miss Li’s students: the ‘brown envelope’. Whatever happens, make sure you don’t get a brown envelope from Miss Li. Inevitably this contained a letter telling you to ‘practice on your own’, a euphemism for being kicked out. Most people thought that Miss Li was a fairly harsh task master. There’s an amusing story that Robert W. Smith relates in his book ‘Martial Musings’ of the captain of the English Karate team – Terry O’Neill - getting expelled from the School because he missed class and eventually Miss Li allowing him back. The point here, of course was that he did the right thing to get back into her good books.
One of Miss Li’s students once related that the problem with Miss Li was that she thought that the students should act like ‘Confucian gentlemen’. I think the clue here (duh!) was that the whole point was that you should act like a Confucian gentleman! As a ‘stupid westerner’ you maybe did things that were really insulting to her but didn’t realise it until it was too late (or if ever!). Many of Miss Li’s students just didn’t get was she was about.
I was lucky. I’d bumped into her during one of the summer weeks away. I’d thought I had offended her in some way and went over to apologise. She ignored my apology and just told me that it was her responsibility to teach students in the best way she could and it was my responsibility to be a good student. There was a sort of ‘contract’ between me as the student and her as the teacher. This gem was a pointer into the way she thought. It gave me clear instruction: get on with it, trust what she says, keep your head down and mouth shut. I subsequently found out that many people would inadvertently offend her during the course of a class but she’d never let on (much later she told me “Don’t give them the pleasure of knowing that they’ve upset you’”). If you were modest enough to come up and apologise then she’d brush the whole thing off and pretend she didn’t know what you were talking about, but God help you if you’d done something and not apologised (“I give them three chances. If they don’t learn by then they never will”). She really did try to live her life and deal with her students via the five Confucian virtues. This, of course, had been ingrained into her psyche from a small age – for example learning to quote by rote Confucius’ Three Character Classic before she’d even understood the meaning of the sounds. In this manner she did things purely by instinct.
If you learnt and didn’t make too many mistakes you’d last the course, but the more experience you got, the closer to Miss Li you became. You got closer to the flame. More, not less, was expected of you. Another time we were away at a summer ‘camp’ and she’d asked one of the older students to teach some of the forms of Mi Zong Chuan to the Xing Yi group. This was in front of a whole audience of students (around 40 in total). In the course of his demonstration, she told him “Don’t do it like that, do it like this”. His reply was that it wasn’t the way she’d taught it in class. What’s interesting about this anecdote is how he blew it on so many levels in one go. He’d made her lose face by contradicting her. More importantly, he’d failed to understand that a piece of tuition (which is a gift) is only right for you on the day – tomorrow or yesterday it might be different. Lastly, and most significantly, it was a real disappointment for her as she’d only let him demonstrate as a confidence building exercise. He was repaying her kindness not only with ignorance but stupidity also. Again, a real line in the sand was being drawn here. Her harshness was based on her commitment - love in actual fact - to teach you as her student. Her compassion was such that she saw your frailty and your failures and was determined to make you a whole person. You were defined by the struggle – her skill as a teacher was that she was able to forge your character to still be human on the outside but be steel on the inside. If you proved yourself not willing to learn you’d either get kicked out or just ignored. But underneath all of this was her empathy; to always try to do the best she could for you.
At another end of the spectrum, there were people that really worshiped her, in a kind of creepy guru way. These people didn’t seem to last long and got fairly short shrift from the sharp edge of Miss Li’s tongue. They didn’t understand the chasm that’s between reverence and respect; there’s a great scene in Seven Samurai when the young samurai, Katsushiro, goes up to Kyuzo, the swordsman, and tells him that he’s really great. Kyuzo smiles and shrugs it off for what it is. Nothing.
Miss Li viewed that her students had a responsibility not only to themselves but to her and their fellow students. This can all be summed up by one word; Jia. Jia in English means family. If you are a martial artist you are Wu Shu Jia. Your martial arts family is your Jia. It’s difficult for someone outside the School to understand the enormity of this concept. A strange example might give you a glimpse into what I mean. Every morning my pet cat comes and wakes me up. Maybe he just wants breakfast or maybe he’s checking to see if I’m alive or not. He jumps on my bed and touches noses. He doesn’t just only touch rather he breathes into my nostrils. He’s saying, “My breath is your breath, your breath is my breath”. If you look into his eyes you realise he’s also saying something quite profound “My ancestors are your ancestors, your ancestors are my ancestors – even though you’re a human and I’m a pussy cat”. As a Member of the School, as a student, you are a representative of Rose Li, Teng Yun-feng and all of those teachers going back into history. It’s not ancestor worship or some kind of cult – again it’s respect not reverence. It’s about duty and obligation to yourself, to your fellow students and to your teacher. It’s understanding the importance of lineage, no matter who you are, where you’ve come from. It’s like saying Mike Tyson’s behaviour is a reflection on Cus D’Amato. It’s like Rose Li saying that in some ways she loved Teng Yun-feng more than her father. We stand on the shoulders of giants but a teacher is defined by their students.
So, on coming to the open access classes, you’ll find that tuition and learning within the Rose Li School is traditional. This means that the School ethos is based upon Confucian principles and practices. Most School outsiders have no idea what this means nor do they understand the responsibility they have when they join the School. Classes within the School have a fairly relaxed atmosphere and the mood is fairly egalitarian, but you’re there to work. Either you do it or not; nothing in between. There are no uniforms, grades, coloured belts, bowing or shouted commands in a foreign language. Anyone can join. Something much less obvious, however, is going on. Students are being assessed continually; students have to show that they can behave and practice martial arts in a suitable way. Older students are expected to have a greater responsibility to the School in the way they conduct themselves and how they act towards each other.
In the West, a student picks the teacher. In the East it’s the other way around. It’s therefore the student’s responsibility to demonstrate their suitability for School Membership. You do this in three ways: payment of fees on time, attendance to class and practice outside of class. The payment scheme, the location of the School, the commitment that’s asked of you to practice etc., are all set up to test you. Classes are there for tuition rather than your weekly practice. If you rely on the open access classes for your sole practice then you’ll not last very long. Students are expected to practice every day on their own. If you don’t practice every day you’ll find yourself lagging behind. The majority of students that leave the School therefore usually leave of their own volition. A large proportion of people turn up and simply don't have any idea what is going on and so dissappear after the first class - this is one of the reasons that the average martial arts experience of students prior to joining the School is around 10 years. The School's classes are consequently not only physically but also psychologically demanding. It’s therefore advised that you don’t join the School if you can’t uphold the financial and time commitment required.
I’ve been lucky. Lucky to survive the system, lucky to be blessed in knowing Rose Li for the person she was and blessed to know all of the School’s current students. Lucky also to have a fairly special pet cat!