Actively researching and writing articles on various subjects in Chinese martial arts I have noticed few very interesting things. First, people involved in Kung Fu more than often exhibit all the signs of a person involved in a religious cult and second, closely related to the first one is that people will reject the facts no matter how strong the proof of those fact is, if they are not completely aligned with their believes. No amount of evidence will make a member of certain kung fu school to reevaluate his or her believes. People react rather aggressively when confronted with truth that oppose their believes, they go as far as using physical violence and there is nothing they will not do to protect their world view and their perceived place in it. It is also interesting that people who are completely logical in all other areas of their lives completely loose control when it comes to kung fu.This behavior is characteristic for non competitive, non combative “martial arts” and sports, and it is more common in online communication while in personal communication where people are physically located at same place is very uncommon.
So, are traditional martial arts really cults? Are practitioners of Traditional martial really cult members? Answer to that question is not simple, fact is, almost all traditional martial arts exhibit some traits of classically defined cults it their recruiting approach, social structure, social interactions within the school\style and with outsiders and even a training approach. Historically speaking, many kung fu styles were real cults at some point in time. From the sociological perspectives, kung fu as well as other “traditional martial arts” stopped to be purely fighting systems long time ago and they offer much more than just fighting, in many cases everything but fighting, at the same time preserving the image of the fighting system. “Traditional martial arts” as a rule involve parts of far eastern religious systems, supposed ancient health preserving systems, esoteric arts, and they offer full spectrum of religious, health, spiritual, therapeutic, self improvement services that revolve around perceived fighting skills which someone will achieve in time. Term “martial art” separates certain practice from “sports” which are total opposites of the “arts”. Combat sports do not have any of traits mentioned above, their complete activity revolve around few simple goals, making the best training approach in order to produce fighters who will be able to win competition fights. In combat sports people simply develop through trial and error approach and there is no place for esotery, religion or spiritualty. Sport is a sport and it is focused on one simple goal. While similar behavior can be occasionally found among sport practitioners, that behavior is sporadic and usually exhibited by people who do not actually fight. Professional and amateur fighters are fully aware of their true abilities, reality check is something they do regularly, their goals and focus in training is quite different from people involved in “martial arts”, they are motivated by completely different things. They are also open to new experiences, trying constantly to improve their fighting skills. One more thing separates combat sports from martial arts. In sports, people responsible to teach and train athletes are coaches, in martial arts people who teach others are called “masters”, “grandmasters” or they use Chinese, Japanese, Korean …language equivalents. More than often, generation of “masters” never had a fight in their lives but they are teaching others fighting arts. In Wing Chun and Tai Chi as two most popular Chinese martial styles today, that is more than obvious.
Very few martial organizations are full blown cults but majority of them have and use some of the techniques used by cults in order to attract and keep their followers.
To understand this behavior we have to understand what kind of people are usually drawn to Kung Fu and what is the psychology behind it.
People are initially attracted to certain martial art by what that particular style is offering. Most of the styles offer same thing and it is really a matter of availability of certain school than actual content that attract people in it. Tai Chi and Wing Chun have most followers simply because most kung fu teachers belong to those styles. These styles on the other hand became widely spread due to Chinese and U.S government political agenda at the certain moment of time. Same happened with Japanese karate, especially Kyokushin some time earlier. Although these days people can do some research about the style/school they are planning to join, and a lot of information is available, often there are simply too many info. and also many information are contradictory. Most important thing is that a beginner have no clue what actually he suppose to search and too many information often leads to confusion. Eventually, person will find what is he or she subconsciously desire.
People join “martial arts” for various reasons, it is also important to notice that people join combat sports for various reasons but those reasons can be put in two categories that lead to desire to compete and desire to learn how to fight. Of course, behind all the reasons stand deep and complicated psychological processes. It is also not uncommon that people believe they joined martial school for one reason, but the real reason stay hidden deep in their subconscious mind.
One way that martial arts attract people is appeal to the pride of human beings through a rationalistic philosophy. Their doctrines sound rational and give their followers the feeling that through following them they will become ``someone important'', and we can see that in such an emphasis put in “lineage”, ”tradition” and “founder of the art” stories. Same things go with offer of higher or secret knowledge that is supposed to make their followers special and to give them powers beyond the usual human capabilities but without hard work and physical and psychological discomfort necessary for such achievement. These two approaches are usually combined together for higher impact on the new customers. Closely related to these two approaches comes another, also important approach in attracting new members and it has more appeal in Western societies due to complex sociopolitical changes in last 70 years. That is a sense of identity that usually comes from the leader or ancestor and it is closely related to “lineage” and “tradition” thing.
The other way is to stimulate the superstitions that many people already carry in themselves. In fact, only a few people really believe that what they see in this world is all there is. Instead they assume that there must be some supernatural force or being which is there to either help or threaten them. Many martial styles appeal to that kind of belief and offer quazi religious system based on all kinds of superstitions masked as either “ancient health practice” or “secret ancient system” which suppose to help practitioner to develop fighting abilities, again, without hard work, pain and psychological discomfort required for such achievement or to help practitioner in his or hers “spiritual growth”.
Humans on basic level desire security, and in a fearful and uncertain world many turn to martial arts because they tend to promote exactly that. Martial arts leaders often make promises that are totally unattainable, but also offered by no other group in society. Such things might include security on physical level,, health, constant peace of mind, achieving high “spiritual” levels the things most humans desire at the deepest level. Today’s world is a tough one, with more abstract issues than there are issues that are black and white. Craving for clarity many people join martial schools because they believe they’re being offered solid, absolute answers for at least some crucial life questions. Many martial teachers leaders promote messages that are simple and seem to make sense, the exact opposite of what we’re often provided with in typical, everyday life. “Wisdoms” like ”Martial art is a way of life” or “ Martial art is not just a way of life it is life its self” say enough about “martial arts” and for many people this is true, they truly believe that practicing certain style will bring answer to any possible question and problems.
While people in martial arts are, for the most part, average people and they come from all backgrounds, all zip codes, and all tax brackets, many people who engage in martial training are said to have low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem are easier to convince that the specific martial school is the supportive environment they’re looking for or the environment where they will achieve their desired goals.
Once people get into practice and get a feeling they have started to achieve something, which can but not necessarily may be true ( more than often progress is more a thing of confirmation bias than real martial advancement) , they slowly commit their self to the style, school, teacher, ancestor…which by its self it doesn’t have to be negative thing if there was not one thing characteristic to so called “traditional” martial arts. So called “traditional” martial arts as a rule have a tendency to isolate themselves from the other styles of the same or similar arts and consider their practices the norm, while everyone else is wrong. “Us vs. them” mentality is prevalent model of thinking in “traditional” martial schools. Every insignificant detail done differently by outsiders is used as proof of their ignorance and inefficiency. That environment with specific personality traits make aggressive zealots out of common martial art practitioners. Aggression breaks out when all other defense mechanisms fail and person feels that his or her believe system, perception of the reality and his or hers perceived place in it is seriously shaken by facts or simply different opinion or practice. Cognitive dissonance and backfire effect play major role in this kind of behavior. In the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger and often this process is accompanied with bursts of aggression. This behavior is characteristic for intellectually dishonest people who have certain emotional or financial interest or fixed worldview and they are immature and irrational. People who evaluate new information through logic and evidence and do not feel personally attacked by different opinions, believes and facts that challenge their current word view, do not react aggressively.