Grafting on new rootstocks

This is another post with no real conclusion; I’m thinking aloud, wondering where a train of thought will take me.

On Monday evening, I was talking to Mark about the challenges of running a systema school. He’s trained extensively with Vladimir Vasiliev, who has authorised him to teach. So, he knows his stuff. The problem, though, is how to market systema. Awareness of the art is very low, to start with. More, a very substantial part of the potential market, ie almost anybody young, seems to want a school where they can get belts and other tangible signs of ‘progress’ – and, I suppose, bragging rights. Before he got into systema, Mark ran a karate school, and commented that classes could have really low attendance until a grading was announced. Then they would fill up but, once the grading was completed, attendance would fall again.

As I’ve commented here before, the exact same thing is happening throughout Asia. I saw it in Singapore, where there are vastly experienced teachers of traditional Chinese arts – but the young people are turning to tae kwon do. Even in China itself, the same trend is apparent, though nationalism and the success of films such as Ip Man are still keeping traditional arts fairly popular.

So how to market arts like taijiquan and systema? In the case of systema, there’s the special forces background, but Mark commented that this frightens off more people than it attracts, and I’ve read an interview somewhere with Vlad in which he says that he had to stop teaching in the way he was taught himself, as it was too hard for Westerners. It does seem to me that his later DVDs are quite different in style to his earlier ones, and to what I see of Mikhail Ryabko’s methods. ‘Western’ systema, as taught by Vlad, thus seems to be evolving into something new – effective, of course, but somehow different to its origins. Perhaps a ‘Yang’ style compared to the original ‘Chen’?

Still: how to market it? There are successful schools in the UK, of course, but they seem to be based around an urban core, ie London. That kind of concentration of interest isn’t possible for most parts of Britain. Another solution might be to identify a specific market, to whose needs the teaching of systema can be crafted. Not easy to do.

Obviously, I haven’t been involved with systema for very long, so take these comments with a pinch of salt; they’re the observations of a novice.

However, I think I’m on firmer ground with taijiquan, and Tabby’s post earlier today raises many of the same points.

I don’t disagree in the slightest with Tabby’s main point. However, the same problem exists: how can it be marketed, when it doesn’t use any external marks of progress, etc. There are even bigger problems for taijiquan, when development really requires some fairly deep knowledge about TCM concepts, qigong, and so on. The Yang family were experts, but the methods they used to try to popularize the art were being mocked in their own lifetime by Wang Xiangzhai; the simplification led to the problems we see today of students learning forms with no understanding of the purpose. And that was in China, while the originators of the style were still alive, or within recent memory. Transfer the style to the West, and the market doesn’t have the slightest knowledge of taijiquan’s cultural roots, while awareness of the art is indelibly marked now by its perception as a ‘health activity’, a ‘Chinese yoga’.

This is something I’ve talked about in the context of the names of the movements: the energy and power is quite clear once you know something of the actual source of the name (how horses behave; what it’s like to use shuttles in weaving), but very few people now have this knowledge. That’s why I would still support the discussion of alignment, fascia, and so on: it’s not the route to achieving the high levels of the art; it’s a way to build the basic understanding of energy and movement that the names describe, but coming at it from a different, Western, direction. Almost no-one understands why training is done slowly.

Even so… How to build a school? Tabby’s spot on in identifying some of the problems. There are people around, even here in Wales, who run schools but they’re tiny (the schools, that is. Not the people. Ahem). The distances in the UK are small compared to the US, but the taxes on petrol are far higher so, as the price of crude oil rises inexorably, driving any kind of distance is going to get less feasible for students and teachers alike. As we’ve seen, Mark’s having to stop classes because of this.

I honestly think that this the beginning of a new localization, when the expectations and abilities we’ve had for travel in the last 20 or 30 years go into reverse; people in Wales are already, it seems, cutting back significantly; we’re a poor nation, so it hits us early; I think that before long, much of the Western world will have much smaller horizons. That’s going to make it even harder to build a school.

Tough questions; I see no answers at the moment. Would I like to run a school, or teach? Yes. I’m about two years away from that, at least, though. Time to think about some answers.


  1. Yeah there’s no way around relocalization, especially for a martial arts school, for all the reasons Tabby Cat states. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, cos it could hopefully remind the students that they are part of a community and help guide the training away from instilling antisocial behaviour. If I were to teach I’d run it more like a collective of like-minded people who all know slightly different stuff and more or less split the cost of the training space, rather than as a school with a teacher who teaches and students who learn. That’s partly because I doubt I’ll ever be good enough to teach, but mainly it’s because I’d hate to start teaching and stop learning / training. Also I think a “collective” would be a good platform for building much more than martial skill – it could become a loose-knit community, which comes back to the concept of relocalisation.


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