3 Goals for Tai Chi and Bagua Self-Defense
Improving in Tai Chi - It Just Takes Time and Hard Work

The Master Disease -- Every Instructor Wants to Be King

I was teaching a taiji class in 1999 and a young man -- in his 20s -- came in for the first time. We were practicing the Chen 19 form. I had only been studying Chen style for a year, after spending over a decade doing Yang style. 

After the class, I was mingling with the students and talked to the young man. At one point he gushed, "I'm just honored to be able to study with a master."

He was referring to me. I laughed. "There aren't any masters here," I replied. "I'm just a little farther down the path than you.

Flash forward a year. I was in Chicago for a couple of days and noticed a Tai Chi school nearby. I thought maybe I could take a class or two while I was in town and learn something. 

The instructor walked up to me -- an Asian American woman in a tai chi uniform who appeared to be perhaps in her early forties. 

"Hello, I'm Master (I forget her last name)," she said and extended her hand. I shook it and exchanged pleasantries. Then I left her school and didn't return.

Anyone who has to introduce themselves as "Master" is NOT a master.

Now, in 2011, you see instructors around the United States adopting the title "Master" in front of their names. Apparently, some believe that becoming a disciple of a Grandmaster makes you, in turn, a Master.

Sorry. It isn't true. It might be good marketing in someone's particular city. There's a guy in my town whose students call him a master. He's a William C.C. Chen student. One of his students told me in 1999 that he was a master. I suppressed a laugh and asked, "Is he really?" The student said yes. A few years later, I saw one of his students and asked if he had been taught how to use the ground path. No, he hadn't. He didn't know what it meant.

Insert deep sigh here.

Everybody wants to be King. Let me explain something. If you grew up in Chen Village and studied five or six hours a day under a tough teacher for 30 years, you just might be a master.

If your body mechanics are amazing and you can break an attacker from another martial art and put him on the ground, you just might be a master. If you can take on other accomplished internal artists in push hands and have them begging for mercy in pain, you just might be a master.

So before you accept the title of Master in front of any American's name, do a little research. Just how good a fighter is this person? Because being a Master is about a lot more than doing a few forms and doing the push hands patterns. It requires much more than having occasional instruction from a Chinese Grandmaster who isn't going to teach them at too high a level anyway. It isn't about traveling to China and having your picture taken "on location." It's about the subtle use of body mechanics, judging an opponent's movement and energy, and it's about applying all that, using chin-na and fa-jing and being one bad mofo who can not only appear graceful but also powerful, and it's about being able to break an attacker in the blink of an eye.

I read about one guy today -- visited his website and couldn't find any video of him performing. He is 47 years old, has black belts in 5 different styles of martial arts, and says he's a Master of Chen Taiji. 

Where does he find the time?

Unfortunately, some Chinese Grandmasters have decided to expand their personal empire by adding a lot of new disciples. When you're a disciple, you aren't supposed to learn from others. That Grandmaster has you locked in. So more disciples means more money and more followers. It's not necessarily a good thing, but as the world of Tai Chi has opened the door (a little) to the West, the Grandmasters have realized there is very good money to be made. Being human beings no different and no less petty than any other human beings, they want to make the money themselves. 

I've sold many thousands of DVDs to internal artists around the world. I receive emails almost every week telling me how amazing the material is -- even some who study with Chinese Grandmasters. Martial artists from Japan to Israel belong to my online school. I make one thing very clear -- I will never be a master. I have things at my level that I can teach to people who are not yet at my level. And if I became someone's disciple tomorrow, I would still never be a master. It's not that easy. In fact, as Chen Xiaowang says when someone is having trouble with a movement, "If it were easy, everyone be master."

Unfortunately, everyone wants the world to think they are masters. And they're not.

Here's a case in point below. Master Wong. Not a master. He's not the only one. When it comes to any martial art -- and that includes the internal arts -- students have to remember it's "buyer beware."



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Jim Criscimagna

Great article, Ken, and very timely too! It seems there are "Masters" coming out of the woodwork these days.

I have noticed several people I know personally in the past few months claiming to be masters in their ads on the internet. It is simple, they are not masters! When they go back to Chenjiagou, they are not considered a master, just another western student there to learn. But once they come back, suddenly somewhere over the Pacific, they become a master. Sort of funny and at the same time very sad.

My comment to those Chen stylists that are beginning to call themselves masters is, are you considered a master in China or Chenjiagou? If not, well then, you aren't a master here either.

Egos abound in the martial arts ... Taiji is no exception. But it is unfortunate, when students of real "Masters" begin to think of themselves as masters, use the title in self promotional ads to get new students or in an attempt to impress people or stroke their own egos, and then begin to blanket the internet and other sources with such claims. Very sad indeed!


Jim, great point.

Chris Miller

Well said, both of you!

Herb Rich

Ken, that was ON TARGET. Well put.

Ron Harth

I agree; A master is somebody who impresses you by what they DON'T say-it's all in how they live on and off the mat.
What Chen form was that "Master" supposed to be doing in the video?


Ron, I have no idea what form he's doing. It must be some person's version of Chen - maybe his own.

Evan Yeung

Great post, Ken!

Just as a matter of education, what is it about "Master Wong's" Chen Taiji is incorrect? I've got some ideas, but since I'm a relative novice on Chen body mechanics, I figure I'd kick it up to you and/or Jim for your expert eyes...


Evan, I didn't pick apart his performance for a reason -- I just wanted everyone to see an example of someone calling themselves a Chen master whose form -- if you look at the connection, the stances, the lack of explosive power in the fa-jing, the chi in his chest, that should give you enough to start with. He might be a nice guy and dedicated martial artist, but master? Not so much.


Thanks, Ken. Hmm... I must be learning something. Those are some of the things I was keying in on.

It looks like "Master Wong" has training in wing chun, JKD, and some other things... don't see a lineage on his website. He could be a "master" in another art, but that would be like me saying that because of my degree I could practice dentistry. :)



You and I see eye to eye many times, and I do respect your opinion, this time we disagree. I always take the term master as a prefix so my next question is always what are you a master of? I don't think anyone has all the skills mastered to a high enough level to just leave it at "I am a master" that would imply that they have mastered all there is to master. There are many skills in Taiji or any discipline. In martial arts I'm not a master of anything but in music I used to be a master of pitch I could pick any song and begin to sing it on key and on pitch (seldom even sharp or flat and I would quickly correct it). So I understand where you're coming from on the titles and the attitudes in the inustry, but I also say you can learn something from anyone.

Thanks for letting me contribute to the conversation,



I don't think we disagree here. I, too, can learn something from just about anyone. Even someone who calls himself -- or herself -- a Master of Tai Chi. Most of them have something they can teach me. That still doesn't mean they deserve the title of Master. Most of them don't deserve it.

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