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I was doing some surfing today and noticed a few mentions of lineage when considering a given school/dojo. The people asking about lineage of a given school seemed to feel that if the instructor(s) didn't post their training lineage, then the school was shady and/or you couldn't be sure that you were getting a good education from them, and that they should be avoided (no matter your reasons for getting into martial arts).

It got me curious: Aside from established associations that require dojos to have certain certifications/credentialling in order to be associated/officially sanctioned with the organization, how important is the lineage of a given school or instructor when it comes to credibility or trustworthiness?

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    A traceable lineage neither guarantees a quality training environment nor a legitimate experience. Plus, the longer the lineage, the more debate. Add to that, Asian cultures have a tendency to embellish their relationships and lineages (for example, it's common in Japanese arts for a soke to claim he was the only student of his teacher).
    – stslavik
    Mar 30 '12 at 19:23
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    Not to mention that just because someone can claim a lineage it doesn't mean that they have been taught everything in the art. Immediately verifiable teaching skills are arguably way more important than lineage.
    – slugster
    Mar 30 '12 at 22:33
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    @Dave - I'd be careful with the "competition record" thing. I don't know if it's the intended meaning, but it gives the connotation that a school is only good if it's used in structured competitions, which can potentially leave out the schools that don't train to compete.
    – Shauna
    Mar 31 '12 at 17:01
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    @Dave (At the risk of getting "chatty"...) And what about the schools that teach for things like self defense and not for competition (and, in fact, may teach things that are illegal in competitions)? (On a side note, I think that could make a good question, if it can be asked in an objective manner.)
    – Shauna
    Mar 31 '12 at 17:34
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    Comments are the space for clarifying questions and the like, not for protracted debate or discussion. Feel free to use the chat. Apr 1 '12 at 0:14
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What Use Lineage?

A traceable lineage neither guarantees a quality training environment nor a legitimate experience. One should also keep in mind that Asian martial arts have a tendency to embellish their relationships and lineages. For example, it's common in Japanese arts for a soke to claim he was the only student of his teacher, or for a practitioner to claim he studied under X, when in fact he studied under X's student Y.

Teachers Versus Lineage

There is a distinction between one's teacher and a full lineage. For instance, in judo, it's common to say "I study under Joe Blow", or "I train at Acme Dojo", whereas it's very rare to hear a judoka lay out the full lineage-chain back to Jigoro Kano. The same situation holds true in many Western arts such as boxing, and schools that focus on practical application. The perspective here is that the quality of one's teacher matters a great deal, but can be judged in itself, without needing to reach back further in history.

The opposite is true in many schools of karate, all Japanese koryu, and schools that focus on history and tradition. Being able to trace an authorized teacher-student relationship to the founder of the style is considered in those circles as the sine qua non of legitimacy.

Another form of legitimacy similar to lineage is membership in an association. In some martial arts, affiliation with a greater body is extremely helpful in establishing a basic level of credibility. In judo, you can ask (and double-check) if a school is affiliated with USJF, USJA, or USA Judo. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you can ask (and double-check) who they got their rank from, and in some situations, whether they are part of an association like Alliance, a Gracie branch, Atos, et cetera.

Note the differences between affiliation and lineage: it is current instead of based in history, it sometimes involves insurance coverage (such as in judo and many forms of Korean karate), and while informative, it is generally not considered a test of legitimacy in itself.

What Instead?

If one does not subscribe to the idea that legitimacy is transmitted solely through lineage, one must take on the task of evaluating the legitimacy of a school. This is a very broad task and should take into account many factors, such as:

  • The practical ability of a teacher, best assessed through a competition record or direct experience (e.g. sparring)
  • The pedagogical ability of a teacher, best assessed by observing their students' behavior in life, competition, and class
  • The environment of a school, best assessed by going there and training

If one of your goals for training martial arts is to learn to fight, then the first one of that list is important. As Matt Thornton notes:

If you want to know if someone is "good" at fighting, or teaching some element of fighting then you must:

A) Watch them spar, or pull off their movement against a resisting opponent. or

B) Watch the "Instructors" students spar, or pull off their movement against a resisting opponent.

There is really no other way.... Anyone can 'look good', even 'look crisp' hitting focus mitts. Or demonstrating one and two step sparring, etc. It has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with whether or not they can actually fight, or know how to teach anyone else how to fight. All it means is. . .they know what they think it should 'look like'.

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I co-sign the preceding answers. As a ostensible "lineage holder" myself, my contribution is more personal:

I'm a direct student of a famous grandmaster swordsman, from whom I have a fabulous diploma certifying me as "a master." He officially made me a lineage holder and expressly permitted me to teach the discipline, use its symbol, and propagate the art. From another grandmaster, a "style collector," I have numerous "skill badges": style/skill certificates in Tiger, Dragon, Drunken Boxing, Chin Na, staff, sword, et cetera. I've also studied a few steps removed from an infamous Eskrima grandmaster. It all would make for great advertising.

But here's the truth: I'm great in none of these disciplines. Very far from it! I'm just an interested student. The swordsman's diploma isn't even in swordsmanship, but qigong. He's also (rightly) famous for qigong--but not nearly as famous as for sword. It would be so, so easy to mis-represent or mis-understand these lineages, connections, and certifications.

I see many martial arts poseurs boasting of impressive lineages or high "ranking." At the same time, I have several teachers who lack impressive pedigree and ranking. They're the "lineage holder" in nothing whatsover. Yet they are truly outstanding--because they've put in the time, study, and attention to understand how the body works, how the style works, and how to use them together. They are constantly studying and improving themselves and their understanding. That's true gōngfu. I aspire to that.

Lineage may help you evaluate "How close is what is taught here to the historical named style?" But it won't help you evaluate the quality of martial arts taught there, nor the quality of the teachers or the teaching. Judge the school and the teachers instead. They're vastly more important than claimed degrees of separation from some historical master, school, or concept.

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  • Excellent post. I too had a famous grandmaster teacher, but I have no certificate, and the only way to validate my lineage is via other students, photos and videos, and the quality of my movement. This last part is the most important—it's good to know who my teacher was, but my technique should be evaluated entirely on its own merits. Like yourself, I am a lifelong student.
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 9 at 1:09
  • Another interesting point—I don't need to know someones teacher in the Chinese arts to guess their general lineage. There it's helpful to be able to categorize as "Shaolin" or "Yang Style" or "Sun Style" or "Wudang", etc. Sometimes you can even guess the specific teacher by the way someone does a technique!
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 9 at 1:11
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My answer here is going to be very similar to my answer to What qualifies a school or business as a legitimate martial arts system?

The short answer is: "It isn't unless you think it is or you are operating in a culture that thinks it is, and then only to the degree that you accept it as valid."

Lineage is frequently claimed, but difficult if not impossible to actually demonstrate. Sometimes this is because the claim clearly has merit but there's no documentation (e.g., he clearly learned the martial art somehow but there's no record of where); sometimes it is because there is no written record that even indicates the style practices resemble the modern forms; sometimes because "trained with" has cultural meaning that may not imply what we think it does (e.g., "took a class with the grandmaster but mostly trained under one of his students); and sometimes it is just because it was made up out of whole cloth at some point (possibly several generations ago, and possibly by people who are no longer alive).

There's also the phenomenon of "yes, X studied P under Y, but what they practice has borrowed from other traditions and now looks very different."

But there's fundamentally very little way to demonstrate any actual lineage. Sometimes the best teachers will have no confirmable lineage or won't even claim a lineage to speak of (beyond possibly referencing their instructor who may very well still be alive and active), where some of the worst may have a long chain of certificates and trophies on their wall.

At the core, there's only so many ways for the body to move and each instructor adds, subtracts, or at least flavors the style while they teach it. The hapkido I am learning from my instructor now is taught a little differently and feels a little different than what I was studying years ago under the same instructor, because both my understanding and my teacher's understanding have evolved over time. This will be reflected in past versus present students, and in their students. Especially long after the people involved are dead.

As a general rule, efficacy and practice of the teacher are more important than any claims from the lineage itself. There is an interesting historical exercise behind it, and researching the matter can help you gain perspective on the art and how it relates to other arts, and sometimes it can help clarify exactly what style of whatever art you are practicing (especially recent lineage). In terms of actual overall importance, however, I am going to steal a line from Worf in Deep Space Nine:

The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.

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Note: This is from my own perspective training within a specific style and culture. It is skewed to my own personal experience and observations, but I hope that the thoughtfulness will be valuable to other people.

Lineage's importance in relation to credibility or trustworthiness of an instructor and school depends on what you are looking for in martial arts training. For some people, that aspect of the traditional culture, fellowship, family, and the values of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next can be very meaningful. For others, those values aren't as important or meaningful to them. Maybe they just want to train simply for exercise or health, the school may be close to where they work or live, or people might have very involved lives in areas outside of martial arts. You don't have to force those values upon them and "convert" them so to speak (doing so might actually push them away), but it is something people can develop an appreciation for if they so choose.

Lineage itself does not indicate the quality of an instructor's teaching or the environmental conditions of a school. There may be good teachers who might not have a well-defined lineage (or perhaps it is one they do not advertise). Their ability to teach and share knowledge comes from within; it is not purely and externally dependent on who taught that person nor where they trained.

A school or instructor that claims a specific lineage doesn't necessarily correspond to official sanction or certification in an art. There are some people who believe that they can take from another art, combine it with their own experience, and claim they have developed a new style or system (believing themselves to be "experts" in whatever regard). It can be seen as disrespectful in some circles because those people don't pay respect to their predecessors or maintain connections or associations with other generations of students and teachers.

Depending on how lineage is claimed or worded, it can also be might read as a vain marketing tactic or as a veiled sign of disrespect. If written in a positive way, however, that describes how the lineage and tradition contributed to an instructor's training and own personal growth (and hopefully that instructor is still learning and teaching within that system), then it shows the treatment and seriousness that someone has given to the martial art and the character of that person which feeds into how that instructor teaches a particular style.

I come from a background and culture where tradition and history is deeply ingrained. With regards to martial arts, the aspect of lineage signifies that the instructor has trained properly within a system and respected it for what it is. The issue of trust and credibility is something I see growing out of the relationship between a person and the art. In what I study, that means paying respect to your ancestors, treating everyone else with respect, cleaning the school, and carrying whatever other responsibilities that come with practicing martial arts. For some people, it is a sacred thing they take very seriously.

There was a phrase (and I think this might be of a particular culture) mentioned to me once that people say which as indicator of how good you are at your skill.

"You have a good teacher."

The meaning of that phrase can be interpreted a number of ways, but it also is an sign of the legacy that is passed down generation to generation. Teaching a martial art is not only teaching movements; it is also about passing down values and lessons, creating a nurturing environment and letting people grow physical, mentally, and spiritually. While some of those things emerge from martial arts, it is not the only source either. With respect to lineage, it is important to me for the values I hold, and I believe that it is valuable to have that. However, it is not something I would consider to be sole determining factor for evaluating the quality of a teacher of school.

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  • Good answer. I stopped showing my tai chi film collection at multi-style events as I got fed up of Tung/Dong family students and Yang family students banging on about who was the "true lineage holder". As a great master said "Do or not do".
    – Wudang
    Nov 23 '12 at 18:09
  • @Wudang Master Yoda...?
    – Matt Chan
    Nov 23 '12 at 22:07
  • Yes. Or the longer version I used to have pinned in my training room "We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training". Someone on rec.martial-arts many years ago
    – Wudang
    Nov 23 '12 at 23:20
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I'm personally skeptical of any school that advertises its lineage prominently, and have never signed up to train at one of them. My reasoning is; don't they have something better to sell me on why they're good? What about the school's values and principles that they expect students to (mostly) follow? Even if I don't feel it's for me, I'm at least impressed with the integrity they display.

Another thing, when looking at full contact competitive styles, in which a fight record is put on the same kind of pedestal as lineage is for some traditional styles, it has more recently become trite to point out that a good fighter isn't necessarily a good teacher, and vice versa. Take that a step further, and the student of a good teacher isn't automatically a bad teacher, and the student of a bad teacher might actually turn out to be a good teacher themself.

Ultimately, there's a couple things I would look at. How competent are all the students as a whole? That's an indication of teaching ability. If you have a couple star students but everyone else is mediocre, that tells you that it's more their natural ability than the teaching skills of the teacher. Given how long the school has been in business, how many long time students are there? If it's less than a year old, you wouldn't be too concerned about that, but if it's more than a decade old and just a couple people are left who have been training there that long, it means a lot of people decided to leave. Maybe it's not because the teacher is a bad teacher, it could be a bad personality instead.

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Just because somebody comes from a certain lineage does not mean he is a good teacher or has certain skills. Lineage charts are pointless as they encourage people to believe that an instructor is a good one just because of his lineage. What about the guys who don't have this fancy lineage? Are they bad teachers? Are they lesser martial artists? It doesn't matter who you get taught by, what matter is the skills and methodology the instructor uses to teach. I've trained with people who came from fancy lineages and had really bad skills. Lineage does not matter.

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Being able to know when, where and for how long does not guarantee that the teacher is a highly qualified individual. However, like any other organization, it cuts down on the false individuals. I read all the critical comments. None gave a solution. It is worth having a lineage that you can trace and confirm qualification. I am more weary of here today, gone tomorrow American organizations. It is important if the organization is linked to a respected organization in Okinawa or Japan. Do your homework.

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  • Good point. New students must also be wary of unreliable claims—some lineages are invented. (I don't reference my direct lineage on forums, where it becomes an appeal to authority, but I do when teaching b/c it's important for my students to know where my training and information comes from, and why I might do things differently from other teachers in the same general style.)
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 9 at 0:28
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The current obsession over lineage is no different from what's happening in the rest of the world and culture regarding credentials, credentials, credential, in the workplace, where they all want you to have either a certificate or a degree even though in the majority of cases, such "certifications" have almost no correlations with work ethic, actual troubleshooting skills or how well one actually does the job.

I have had to teach everyone that was brought on a job with their degree's or certifications numerous things about how to troubleshoot networks, routers, switches, computers, how to think logically, critically and technically, even though I've only taken classes and learned most of what I know from actually fixing said equipment.

The same is also very much true for the obsession only lineage in the martial arts. I have advertised to teach in the past online and most of the questions I got were regarding lineage. Part of my advertizing was emphasizing that if you wanted to really learn how to fight using real gung-fu, not just forms galore with no real world fighting applications, then contact me to learn more.

But despite that, almost all of them were still more concerned with my specific linage and could I prove it, getting various ranks and how often I gave advancement tests, etc..

I went back and forth with several of these potential students and ultimately almost all of them never bothered because, as usual with the entire culture today, they were more interested in getting a type of "college course in Gung-fu" rather than actually learning how to really fight, to work hard at improving themselves, gaining power, strength, physical, mental and spiritual skills that would vastly improve their health, strength, speed, endurance, toughness, longevity and more.

This is why I''ve had very few students overall, because most either do not want to work hard at all, don't care if they can ACTUALLY fight, as long as they FEEL they can fight and are more concerned with bragging to others about the lineage of their master or school than the skills they've obtained. To me this is utterly ridiculous, insane and waste of time.

I was taught privately by my first teacher who did learn directly from an Grandmaster that is now over 110 years old who was one of the last true students from the southern Shaolin Temple that was destroyed in 1928. So the "lineage" is about as authentic as you can get, but because I don't have some official looking document claiming that my teacher, or his teacher was granted the "authority" to teach or holds the official teachings, many people simply didn't want to bother even meeting and seeing what I can really do.

Several even said that they don't care how fast, strong, powerful, skilled or how much knowledge I actually have, if I can't prove lineage they didn't want to "waste their time or money". I simply said to this person "Then you are not really interested in true gung-fu, being an heir to that true knowledge, working hard to gain true skills or learning an amazingly powerful and effective art that can save your life in countless ways and improve your life on every level, so we're obviously not right for each other as I'm not interested in teaching people that are only concerned with the vanity of having some pointless certificates or bragging rights to some lineage that can't be proven either way. I could just as easily fake up some "official" looking document and claim it was from my teacher or the Grandmaster of the system and unless you went and spoke to the Grandmaster, you wouldn't have a clue.

So as I'm sure you can gather from my response, lineage has little to nothing to do with trustworthiness or credibility, nor with the skill of a teacher, his character, attitude, how good a teacher he is, the knowledge he or she possesses, etc.

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It really depends on the system. In Chinese straight sword, there is a some difference in the range of techniques practiced, which are handed down from teacher to student, from an extant system, and the practice of straight sword for competition sparring in reconstructed systems. This is partly due to the range of techniques that can be applied in a given sport, vs. the real world combat these sports emulate to some degree.

Chinese straight sword transformed into a non-military sport/exercise only in the 20th century, when swords were used less and less in combat, before disappearing entirely from the battlefield.

I don't think lineage would be a major factor in sports like MMA or boxing—only results in the ring.

An archaic martial art like straight sword in the contemporary era is mostly about preserving the tradition and knowledge, even as it no longer has realistic, direct practical application in any likely scenario.

One clear advantage to studying within a validated lineage in this regard is there is generally rigorous training in the basics, because those basics have been reinforced and refined for several generations. Additionally, the teacher may still be receiving instruction and correction from their teacher.

By contrast, a boxer with a good coach is going to get this without a martial lineage, and this also seems the case for judo and MMA.

In the wider martial arts it's more of a crapshoot, such that you see a lot of sloppy practice, which can derive from inadequate instruction. A validated lineage can reduce the chances of this.

However:

  • Lineage does not guarantee quality

Martial arts is also a business, and, like any franchise, as the number of schools rise, the quality of any given school can vary. (Ideally, branch schools are connected to parent schools, such that newer teachers can themselves receive correction over decades.)

Much of the martial arts knowledge is passed down directly, or as part of an oral tradition, such that, prior to the 20th century, documentary evidence to validate claims is scant.

This isn't a major problem, as any given martial art must be continuously tested, these days typically in a sport context. But it is a potential pitfall for those starting out in the martial arts, before they have the experience to evaluate what is high quality and reliable, and what is not.

  • Lineage can be an important consideration, depending on goals, or not a consideration at all

Lineage seems to be most important in Chinese martial arts, where tracing the history and a given style or movement, as they evolve, is valued.

Chinese martial arts potentially give highest weight to the "art" dimension, where there was never a real separation from performing arts. (Chinese Opera and sword dancing, originally military training exercise, known today as "wushu forms", directly leads to Kung Fu movies, starting in the 1920's. Most contemporary fight choreography derives from this form, and most of the action direction and editing related to complex fight scenes in the visual medium in general, because most of the early technical cinematographic work was done in Hong Kong in more recent decades.)

Even Chinese martial choreography has lineages, most famously the Yuen Clan and the Lau. Lau Kar-leung traces his martial lineage directly to Wong Fei-Hung through his father Lau Cham, student of Lam Sai-wing. Gordon Liu learned Hung Ga from the Lau.

In Tai Chi, Chen style is though to be the oldest, and Yang style the most widely practiced, with at least 6 or 7 other major styles. It's useful to know where an application comes from, and why it may be practiced differently in different styles (most tai chi movements have multiple applications.)

Lineage in the Chinese sense doesn't seem to be a factor in the highest prestige modern martial sports—boxing, judo and MMA—with perhaps a caveat for BJJ, which is the product of multiple lineages over multiple generations, leading to modern MMA.

I have heard the Kodokan spoken of as a gold standard, and Jimmy Pedro and Kayla Harrison talk about the value of this resource and connection for US judo.

BJJ itself arises out of the Kodokan, via Mitsuyo Maeda through Carlos Gracie.

Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard would probably say they are "students" of Sugar Ray Robinson, as scholars of the "sweet science", meaning he was potentially their greatest influence, as both on on record that Robinson was the greatest of all time. Both credit Robinson for providing the platform they themselves stood on to continue advancing the art.

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