Wednesday, May 11, 2016


by Phillip Starr

*Partially excerpted from “The Making of a Butterfly” by the author

Contrary to what many people believe, China is not “the land of bowing.” That title is reserved primarily for Japan. This is not to say that the Chinese don't bow; they do, when they intend to show deep respect or thanks. It is a beautiful convention that has, unfortunately, been forgotten in the Occident where it was once fairly common.

In Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean martial arts schools it is customary to bow when walking onto or leaving the training floor, when addressing a teacher, and many schools do it when the instructor enters or leaves the training area.

I remember a day many moons ago when I learned the real significance of the bow. My classmates and I trained in the basement and backyard of our teacher's home and although Chinese martial arts schools generally don't require students to bow to the training area, I did (mostly because I also trained in Kyokushin and Shito-ryu karate and I was accustomed to doing it). It had become an unconscious habit that my teacher, W.C. Chen, eventually came to appreciate.

As I stepped from the basement stairs onto the floor, I quickly bowed and walked in. Being in a bit of a hurry to start warming up, I actually just nodded my head. Before I'd made it ten feet, my sifu motioned for me to approach him. As I did so, he said, “You did not bow when you entered the room.”

I thought that maybe he'd missed it because it was quite slight. “Yes I did, sifu.”

He became stern and replied, “That was not a bow. Try again.” He waved me back to the stairway. I bowed more deeply this time but it didn't satisfy him. “That's not a bow”, he said.

Okay. I was a bit confused. WHY wasn't the deeper bow correct?

He motioned for me to approach him again and then swept his arm across the room. “When you bow, you are honoring those who have gone before you and who have given us this art. This is where you will develop yourself and grow (up).”

Turning to face me, he continued, “You must be reverent because this is where you will learn to save your life! You must always train seriously, as if your life depends on it...because it does! So, you must always be serious when you bow.” I was taken aback a bit. I'd never looked at it that way.

Addressing the other students who were eavesdropping, he said, “And all of you must humble yourselves here. You are here to learn and if you cannot be humble, you cannot learn. If you have a big (swelled) head, then you have an empty head and an empty heart. So be serious; be humble.”

He turned back to me and continued, “You will teach this art someday and you must be even more serious than your students. You must be more humble, too. A real teacher is this way because he knows the why and not just the how.”