Physical Training Oct 2012
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From the Teacher's Corner 24:
Three Generations

copyright © 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb, which goes like this:

富 不过三代
Fu bu guo san dai

Wealth does not pass three generations”

This saying is a famous one in Chinese culture and refers not only to monetary wealth, but more generally towards family fortunes. More specifically, it refers to the rise and fall in power and influence of any family, including kings, monarchs, and dynasties as well. The thinking is that the accumulated fortunes of a family begin to dissipate after three generations.

This same proverb has also been expressed in differing ways such as: “From rags to riches and back again in three generations” and “From rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations”.

Regardless of exactly how it is expressed, the meaning is consistent. Wealth does not pass three generations. Basically, what it means is this. Namely, that in three generations, a family or dynasty will have run its course. The wealth (be it money, power, or influence) of a family can rarely last past three generations.

The explanation goes like this. The first generation works extremely hard to build the family fortune. The second generation reaps the benefits. The third generation squanders the wealth. While the second generation may see the value of hard work, the third forgets it.

Even other cultures, such as the Arab culture, have their own version of this phenomenon of three generations:

The first generation retains the desert qualities, desert toughness, and desert savagery…they are brave and rapacious…the strength of group feeling continues to be preserved among them. They are sharp and greatly feared. People submit to them.

Under the influence of royal authority and a life of ease, the second generation changes from the desert attitude to a sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which one man claims all the glory…others are [in]…humble subservience…the vigour of the group feeling is broken…But many of the old virtues remain…because they [the people] had had direct personal contact with the first generation…

The third generation, then, has (completely) forgotten the period of desert life and toughness…Luxury reaches its peak among them…Group feeling disappears completely…People forget to protect and defend themselves…In the course of these three generations, the dynasty grows senile and is worn out.*

*Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Even in our modern times, we have examples of this, particularly in North America. I live and work in the Greater Toronto Area, which is an immigrant mecca. I teach kenjutsu in an area that is nicknamed Little Hong Kong, for its Hong Kong-style of living. And the area I teach in is full of immigrants.

The immigrant story is a common one in North America. The immigrant generation works hard, non-stop, to build a foundation. Everything they earn goes towards their children: their education and future. The second generation achieves the goal of the parents, the first generation. They establish the family. In the case of immigrants, it is to reach that middle-class or upper middle-class of mainstream society, one that they were not allowed access to due to their ethnicity and their poor condition. The third generation, born into great comfort and luxury, do not know what it is like to struggle and work hard. They are born with a sense of entitlement. They expect things to be given to them or that they deserve them somehow. That is when the decline happens. I myself come from immigrant parents so I can fully relate to this story.

In history, we see ample examples of this. Take the Roman Empire. In a nutshell, the early Romans worked hard to establish Rome after the decline of Greece as the power in the Mediterranean. The history of the Gracchi and Marius details this and the building of the Republic of Rome, founded on great principles and ideas. In the second phase, or the second generation so to speak, the Republic of Rome gradually changes into the Empire of Rome. Notable figures from this time include Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Rome has grown so large that they need to institute ways to control it and streamline operations and administration of the various provinces and territories. The third generation is the decline phase. The Empire of Rome is out of control. The Emperors are not looking to expand the Empire or improve it. The pure ideals are gone. They now look to line their purses or satisfy their whims. Officials become less concerned with the general good and focus more on their own affairs instead. With prosperity comes corruption. It has become so bloated that it starts to rot from within. Looking at the histories of Nero, Commodus, and other bloody Emperors attests to this.

In other words, the history of Rome also mirrors the three generations thinking. The first generation works hard to build something. The second generation builds upon it, achieves the goals of the first generation, and maintains it. The third generation, because it did not have the same experience of having to work hard, struggle, and earn everything, inevitably squanders the wealth and loses it.

How does this relate to martial arts teaching? Look at the organization that you belong to. Are you looking at the first, second, or third generation, figuratively speaking? If you run a martial arts organization, are you the first, second, or third generation?

I tend to find from my experiences with many martial arts organizations that the first generation are the true pioneers. There is nothing there and they have to create something from scratch. They spend their entire career building something from nothing. They lay down the blueprint; they start the building. This is the most creative phase. You find the true visionaries here, with that creative spark, vision, and drive. The builders, the inventors, the architects, the founders.

There’s a common example of this in martial arts. The intrepid ones who go to Japan, Korea, or China and learn a martial art or style there direct from a master. They come back to their own country and start a group. This is a common example and one found in the more common arts. An even more rare example are the pioneers that start a following in their country where none existed before. In essence, they are the first. They start the revolution. They really have no example to follow or anyone to lean on or learn from. They lay the foundation. They must work hard to establish the name of the art, the name of their organization, and their own name.

The second generation inherits that blueprint. There are three outcomes that may come about in the second generation. If the second generation head (i.e., boss, administrator) is really good, he builds upon that and expands it to greater heights. If the second generation head is OK, he may only have the capability to maintain it at its current level. Perhaps he is lacking in vision or industriousness (e.g., drive), or both. If the second generation head is weak, the organization will start to crumble. In this phase, you typically find the administrators, the bureaucrats, the magistrates, the managers. They manage what is already in place. In the case of the bad, you find the dictators and tyrants.

In martial arts, this generation are the students of the pioneer, typically first or second-generation students. They are taught by the founder and learn the blueprint. There are a few different ways that this generation manifests itself.

One, they may succeed the founder. Usually only one person does this.
Two, they may establish branch dojos. Affiliated to the main dojo, they open new locations and expand the business.
Three, they may become independent with the wishes of the founder. This happens with founders who are not possessive. This may occur in three ways: 1) because the founder wishes to go in a different direction, 2) the student may want to go in a different direction, or 3) they both want to go in different directions.
Four, they may go rogue. In essence, they become an independent which is unaffiliated with the founder’s organization. Either they are kicked out of the founding organization or they leave voluntarily. Both avenues occur due to conflict.
This generation is not establishing anything revolutionary. The blueprint is there and the foundations are already put in place. They just inherit it and either build on it, maintain it, or waste it.

In the karate world of North America, I know the story of one master who started an organization and a movement. He taught many students and taught them well. What happened to those students (the 2nd generation) is exactly what is outlined above. One guy succeeded him (point #1). A few established branch dojos (point #2). Some went independent but kept ties to the founder and kept a good relationship with their teacher (point #3). Some went rogue and did their own thing, not wanting to maintain any relationship with their teacher (point #4). That master has since passed away but his legacy remains.

The third generation’s destiny really is an extension of what occurs in the second generation: a continuation of the good policies and procedures of the previous generation, or the gradual but inevitable demise of the organization. Born into privilege and power, their beginning condition is vastly different than the first generation. Where the first generation had no one to learn from and had to create something from nothing, the third generation is born into a position where they do not absolutely need to build anything, they do not have to struggle. Metaphorically speaking, they were not thrust into the world poor and penniless, and with nothing but the shirt on their back. They were born into a world with a silver spoon, into a world of privilege and rank. Here, in the case of the bad, you find the dilettantes, dabblers, and poseurs. In the good, maybe a Marcus Aurelius: a good emperor, a philosopher-king in the Platonic mold.

Their expectations are different too. The first generation had no expectations. As immigrants (even in a metaphorical sense), they were not given anything. Everything they wanted and dreamed of, they had to earn… the hard way. The third generation, on the other hand, comes with a wholly different set of expectations. Born into a world of comfort, where they lack nothing and where everything is already done and prepared for them, they naturally have a sense of entitlement.

In a martial arts sense, the third generation is groomed to take over. They expect to be the president or headmaster. They don’t need to struggle to create the dojo, or build the reputation of their name, or the dojo or brand.

Here’s an interesting anecdote from public schoolteaching. I know a teacher who teaches in an affluent community. I know another teacher who teaches in an inner-city school in a poor part of a big city. They are both teachers and their mandate is the same: to educate the next generation of citizens. Their teaching conditions and environment however could not be more different.

The kids in the affluent community wear their Guccis to school, have cell phones and lap tops, have prepared lunches, and spend their weekends at their million dollar cottages up north. The kids in the inner city have only few clothes and spend their weekends hanging out in alleyways.

The kids in the affluent community complain to the principal if their sub sandwiches have tomatoes in them or if their pizzas have mushrooms on it. They hate tomatoes and refuse to pick it out of their subs. They send it back. Their parents call the school to demand a replacement lunch. The kids in the inner city school are happy if they have a lunch.

The affluent kids grow up feeling they deserve things, that it is their natural birthright to have these things or to expect these things. The poor kids grow up thinking of how to survive.

Totally different worlds.

Entitlement. Privilege. Divine right. Like the later Roman Emperors.

The other day I was talking with a fellow martial artist about this very issue. The international martial arts organization that he belonged to was created by the father of the current headmaster. So the organization is now in the second generation, run by the son of the founder. The father in question, the first generation, was a real visionary and pioneer.

I asked this fellow martial artist about how he saw the evolution of this organization. He told me directly but to avoid going into details and to protect the identity of the source, I will relate this story to you through an allegory about the case of Rome:

The heady rise of the Republic of Rome, driven by its creative personalities with their dazzling vision, enthusiasm, and spirit of adventure, attracted many to join in its growth. The consolidation and gradual evolution of Rome into an Empire introduced restrictive laws and strict measures to control its growth and tightly manage its operation. Vision and enthusiasm had given way to sobering restraint and circumspect management.

I asked him how the organization is faring now. He told me that many have since left. They lost a lot of good people. I asked why. He said the vision is gone, the enthusiasm is gone, the magic is gone. I asked him how it feels now. This fellow martial artist, not wanting to rock the boat, simply said to me these words:

Genetics does not guarantee a good teacher… ”

The slide down had already begun.

“Fu bu guo san dai”?
In this case, most definitely.

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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