The 3 stages of a martial artist’s journey : this is the way

Like dance and music, martial arts are part of humanity’s intangible heritage. They are passed down from generation to generation, sometimes through so-called “immutable” traditions, depending on the styles, currents and teachers who disseminate these arts.


However, as an intangible heritage, martial arts are always represented by those who express them. There is, in fact, a bias, a prism, through the martial expression of the practitioner.

I believe that a martial art is constantly evolving and that it is never set in stone for eternity. Like a language, a martial art is alive, mutating and changing, whether voluntarily or not. The most traditionalist and conservative practitioners will certainly not appreciate this post, but my words are not intended to be a consensus; I’m just expressing my opinion.


I distinguish 3 major stages in a martial artist’s journey. I’m not talking about grades here, but rather about a personal path leading the practitioner to the highest level of his art.


Stage 1: the apprentice

The apprentice, the student, the disciple… this is the new initiate. The person who learns a martial art in its early days, up to a certain level of mastery. He is in the phase where he must understand the art intellectually and physically. He reproduces the movements and techniques of his instructor and his elders, but has not yet truly appropriated them. This is a more or less lengthy step, during which efforts must be made to acquire the fundamentals of the style. In most common grades, the passage to black belt symbolizes a certain level of mastery.


Stage 2: the expert

The expert is the confirmed practitioner. He has acquired experience and mastered the fundamentals of his martial art. The expert correctly represents the style he practises, so that when it’s a classic martial art known to the general public (Karate, Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, Taekwondo…), you recognize the style by the way he moves. Reflexes are deeply anchored in his practice, and the intellect is less solicited. His movements are fluid, precise and powerful. The expert expresses himself freely through his style. He sets an example for his cadets, and it’s not uncommon for him to be an instructor of his own martial art by this stage.


Stage 3: the master

The master is the one who has reached the highest level of his art. By master, I’m not necessarily talking about the person who teaches, although this is often the case. The master is the one who is at one with his art, who even transcends it. His practice is fluid and his movements seem natural. We’re talking here about a practitioner with an in-depth knowledge of his style and a wealth of experience. In fact, the master is often an elderly practitioner who enjoys a consensus, at least within his community. At this stage, if the master is a teacher and has established a lineage, it’s highly likely that he will make a deep mark on the style they practice and influence it in one way or another. In this way, the master’s style evolves, changes and can take on a whole new flavor.


The martial artist’s journey is taken by all those who wish to practice a martial art. Many never progress beyond the apprentice stage, and very few reach the master’s level. Indeed, while motivation alone is enough to get started, it requires discipline to train and refine techniques over several years. Perseverance is required to reach a high level of practice, and not everyone can achieve this. It’s called Kung Fu in Chinese martial arts. Check my post on the subject.


How to recognize expert and master?

Usupers exist in all fields, and it’s not always easy to identify them at first glance.

A Chinese proverb says Yat Tung Seui Bat Heung, Bun Tung Seui Fong Dong 一桶水不响 半桶水晃荡, meaning “A full bucket of water is not noisy, a half bucket sloshes.” This proverb is a metaphor that compares a person’s level of knowledge, to the level of a bucket of water. In other words, a person with a high level of knowledge is generally quiet and doesn’t feel the need to express his knowledge – this is a full bucket. On the other hand, a person with less knowledge may talk a lot in an attempt to position themselves as the person who knows, making a lot of noise – this is the half bucket.

But let’s keep things simple and pragmatic: we recognize a musician or a dancer by his artistic performance, and the same goes for a martial artist. The Shifu of Tai Chi Chuan will express himself by doing push hands, Tuishou 推手, while the Mestre of Capoeira will do so within a Roda, and the Khru of Muay Thai will show martial applications at full speed and with power and precision. Whatever the style, we can already recognize a martial artist’s talents… by his practice!

As a martial artist never evolves alone, expert and master inevitably interact socially with other practitioners. Recognition often comes from people at different levels. Firstly, by people at a higher level, who may award grades or titles of recognition. Then by peers at an equivalent level. And finally, by lower-level practitioners or students/disciples, if the expert/master is a teacher.

Finally, recognition also extends beyond the expert/master’s own clan, through his influence. In other words, recognition from structures outside the practitionner’s own clan, from other styles, from the press, etc., who recognize the expert/master as being competent in his field and as an authority.

Founding of HKCMAA, Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Association, on August 8, 1969, for the promotion of Chinese Martial Arts in Hong Kong. Ip Man was one of the charter members of the HKCMAA, among Hong Kong’s many martial arts masters.


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