Reputation And Lineage in Martial Arts

Bill Mattocks

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I see several threads discussing lineage and there seem to be two schools of thought. One is that lineage in martial arts matters, and the other is that it does not. I understand both sides.

On the one hand, knowing an instructor's lineage tells those who are educated about that particular style / lineage what they might hope to expect from that instructor.

On the other hand, not all instructors or students are created equal. Just because a person is trained in XYZ lineage, it doesn't guarantee that they can teach XYZ effectively, or at all.

I feel that lineage in martial arts ties in to the notion of reputation. When a person claims a lineage, they are tying themselves, for good or ill, to the overall public reputation of that lineage.

In this sense, when I say I am a student of Sensei X, who is a student of Master Y, who was the student of Soke Z, those who know of these people may feel that I am a somewhat known quantity even without seeing my abilities demonstrated.

And although this may end up being a disappointment if in fact I am a very poor student, it can set the expectation.

It is like in older times when a person might introduce themselves by producing a letter from a well-respected former employer or relative, introducing this person and vouching for them. If I had shown up on a printer's doorstep in the late 1700s and produced a letter from Benjamin Franklin stating that I had learnt the art of printing from him and testifying that I was a master printer, it would go a long ways towards getting me a job, right?

I would be trading on the reputation of Benjamin Franklin as a well-respected printer (among his other fine abilities).

It would not necessarily mean that I was all that the letter of introduction claimed; but it would set an expectation.

Having said that, when a martial arts system appears which lays claim to an ancient and venerable lineage, that sets an expectation as well. If the lineage claimed is real, one hopes that the claim is valid. Lying about a lineage to gain respect based on that lineage is fraudulent, in my opinion. When one is found out to be a liar about that claim, it really doesn't matter anymore if their abilities are real. So what if they can teach an effective martial arts system; if they are morally bankrupt enough to make such a claim, I certainly would not be interested in learning from them.

Likewise, some claim a lineage that upon examination, appears to be made-up. This was more possible in the past than it is today, because due to technology, the world is shrinking. It is less possible to make a claim involving unknown masters of an unknown art who for some reason have been utterly ignored by history, but who nevertheless possessed all the powers of the mightiest martial artists who ever lived, and someone this legacy has passed unchanged down to the current day. Such claims are often if not usually met by ridicule these days.

As with the person who claims a lineage that is legitimate while they themselves are not qualified to claim that lineage, this says nothing about the validity of their training, but it says a lot about their character. As with the person claiming a valid lineage but not qualified to do so, I would not be interested in being their student. Anyone who lies about where they learned, who taught them, and what qualifies them to teach me is not the type of person I would want as an instructor.

Finally we come to the instructor who claims no noble and ancient lineage. Although one can certainly not accuse them of claiming a fraudulent lineage, that also does not mean that because they are blunt and honest about their background, that their instruction or art is therefore valid and good.

In fact, there is no lineage that anyone can claim, from an ancient to a modern or even to no lineage at all, which guarantees the validity of the art being taught, the quality of the instruction, or the ability of any given student to learn it.

So why does lineage matter at all then?

Because when it is true, it sets an expectation, which can help guide others. When it is false, it sets a different, less favorable expectation.

This can't always be depended upon. But when we consider that a new student is generally hardly qualified to know if what they are being taught is a valid art which actually works, and they don't want to invest years in training something that is utter rubbish until they learn enough discernment to discover it on their own, reputation in the form of lineage is a useful tool.

There is one more aspect that can be considered. Reputation flows both ways. When I speak, although I speak only for myself, and even have a disclaimer that states that explicitly, people who know my sensei have spoken to him about me and the things I say and do. For good or ill, I can affect his reputation. This does have an effect on me - I try my best to only say and do things which will not harm him. He could likewise alter his own sensei's reputation. And so it goes.
 

Andrew Green

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Because when it is true, it sets an expectation, which can help guide others. When it is false, it sets a different, less favorable expectation.

I'm not really sure it does, not to prospective students anyways. You could tell a potential student you spent 10 year training directly under Tatsuo Shimabuku and true or not their response would be the same. "Who? Never heard of him.". More likely they will ask around the community, check out online reviews of your school, come in and do some sort of trial and make a call based on that.

Lineage is purely a internal thing to some organizations of martial artists, the outside world doesn't know or care. You have to get them in, and teach them what lineage is and how yours is important and by then they are already a student and have a view of you as an instructor, so I'd hardly call it setting a expectation.

The only people that would know what your lineage meant would be those that already trained
 
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Bill Mattocks

Bill Mattocks

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I'm not really sure it does, not to prospective students anyways. You could tell a potential student you spent 10 year training directly under Tatsuo Shimabuku and true or not their response would be the same. "Who? Never heard of him.". More likely they will ask around the community, check out online reviews of your school, come in and do some sort of trial and make a call based on that.

And those people he or she asks, if they are martial artists themselves, will have some people who know who Shimabuku Tatsuo Soke was and may respond positively based upon that.
 

Tony Dismukes

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I agree with a lot of this, but I would add some caveats.

First, a large percentage of martial arts history that is presented by teachers of all kinds of arts is highly questionable - details of an art's origin, history, and lineage may be exaggerated, distorted, or outright made up. You may judge the character of an instructor who has clearly deliberately invented a false lineage himself, but many instructors are passing along misinformation that they honestly believe - either because they were deceived themselves or just confused about the facts. For that reason, I will only judge a person's honesty if I know they are lying about their own experience with their own teacher(s). If they are passing on misinformation about the lineage beyond their own instructor, I'll generally chalk that up to the fact that most martial artists are not historians.

Secondly, the reputation of a given teacher often has as much to do with marketing and advertising and networking as actual skill or knowledge. Some instructors who are famous and have large followings are not as good as others who are much more obscure. Generally, if you tell me "teacher x is amazing", I need some evaluation of your level of understanding to know whether I'm likely to agree with your judgment. A new student is unlikely to have much basis for knowing how much they can take the word of their martial artists friend who is providing a recommendation.
 
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Bill Mattocks

Bill Mattocks

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I agree with a lot of this, but I would add some caveats.

First, a large percentage of martial arts history that is presented by teachers of all kinds of arts is highly questionable - details of an art's origin, history, and lineage may be exaggerated, distorted, or outright made up. You may judge the character of an instructor who has clearly deliberately invented a false lineage himself, but many instructors are passing along misinformation that they honestly believe - either because they were deceived themselves or just confused about the facts. For that reason, I will only judge a person's honesty if I know they are lying about their own experience with their own teacher(s). If they are passing on misinformation about the lineage beyond their own instructor, I'll generally chalk that up to the fact that most martial artists are not historians.

Secondly, the reputation of a given teacher often has as much to do with marketing and advertising and networking as actual skill or knowledge. Some instructors who are famous and have large followings are not as good as others who are much more obscure. Generally, if you tell me "teacher x is amazing", I need some evaluation of your level of understanding to know whether I'm likely to agree with your judgment. A new student is unlikely to have much basis for knowing how much they can take the word of their martial artists friend who is providing a recommendation.

Well said, I have to agree with you.
 
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