© 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.
There is an ancient
Chinese proverb, which goes like this:
guo san dai
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
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:
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.
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…
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.*
Ibn. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. Translated by Franz
Rosenthal, Bollingen Series. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University
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
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
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
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
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
: 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
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.
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
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
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:
not guarantee a good teacher… ”
The slide down had
“Fu bu guo san
In this case, most
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.