The correct practice of martial arts develops physical health, emotional maturity and intellectual acuity. In this sense, it is one of the world’s oldest personal development disciplines.
Whether you enjoy martial arts, or any other activity for personal growth, you need to measure your results at regular intervals; otherwise, as time passes, you are likely to drift away from your original goals. As Taijiquan master Wang Zongyue allegedly wrote, “If you are off by just one inch at the start, you will deviate by one thousand miles in the end.”
But how can you accurately gauge your progress in a complex and personal pursuit? Traditionally, martial artists would compare skills by crossing hands in a duel, or bei mo in Cantonese. While the outward results of a challenge match are indisputable—two men enter, one man falls—this tradition has some serious drawbacks.
Almost by definition, the defeated contender will not understand why they lost, making it difficult for them to address their underlying weaknesses in the future. Was it a simple height/weight disadvantage? Bad timing, or position? Lack of courage? Bei mo does not provide answers to these specific and important questions.
Furthermore, victory in a challenge match often goes not to the most talented fighter, but the one who is most willing to bend the rules. In this circumstance, one contender decides they would rather injure, cripple or kill their opponent than endure the humiliation of defeat. Pathetic justifications for unsportsmanlike conduct typically follow, e.g. “There are no rules in the street.”
Despite these shortcomings, challenge matches have one distinct advantage over other heuristics commonly employed today. Bei mo does measure ability, albeit roughly. Modern practitioners, on the other hand, are more likely to crow about their efforts than their accomplishments, as if the efforts themselves were noteworthy.
- I’ve been studying for twenty years.
- I’ve learned from (a long list of famous masters).
- I practice thirty hours per week.
- I’ve sacrificed (family / friends / wealth / happiness) for my art.
If comparing yourself to others is not a good way to check your progress, and trying hard is no guarantee of improvement, than what is the alternative?