Interview With Terry Brown

With more than 50 years experience, Terry Brown, our Founder and Chief Examining Instructor is recognised internationally as one of the best martial arts instructors in the business. EMA Student James Danson asks the questions.

What is the state of Fong Yang today?

Those of you who have read my profile will know that long before I discovered traditional English martial arts I was a student of Fong Yang kung fu, aka the Beggars Art. At the same time I also trained in Singapore’s indigenous martial art called Khong Chang which is also known as Chinese karate. Although English martial arts eventually became my main focus I still practise Fong Yang for my personal benefit. but I also feel that I have an obligation not to forget the arts, parts of which date back more than 1,800 years. I haven’t returned to Singapore since my teacher Sifu Tan Siew Cheng died which is more than twenty years ago but I stay in touch with the Fong Yang Association members from whom I know that both Fong Yang and Khong Chang are both still active and both are competing in, and winning, various competitions.

Grand Master Tan Siew Cheng and Terry Brown

What do you enjoy outside of martial arts?

My life outside of martial arts is of course my family but I also like political and social history. Social history of course includes sporting pastimes and it was the latter that led me, eventually to English martial arts. Nowadays much research can be carried out online but when I researched English martial arts there was no such thing as the world wide web* so my life was split between work visits to libraries, museums, and public records offices and such like; I spent many years laboriously writing everything down longhand.

* www started in 1993

What advice do you have for absolute beginners – where should their focus lie?

caveat emptor, the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.

I say the above because there have always been fake martial arts instructors around and therefore the need to check out the backgrounds of MA instructors. If the person you are enquiring about is teaching a recognised system you can check if he recognised by the governing body of the system in question. If there is no governing body then I suggest you visit the bullshido website which is dedicated to exposing frauds and fakes. You might also run across people (as I have) who claim that they teach a secret system of WMA that has been passed down through their family for centuries. The fact that it was a hitherto secret family system is, they claim, the reason why they can’t produce authentication. This is much less of a problem with Eastern martial arts; kung fu, for example, has many known and recognised family systems. I once sparred with an instructor trained in a formerly secret family system supposedly used in battle in England almost a thousand years ago! The instructor in question was embarrassingly inept.

Some years ago I watched a football programme in which a premier team manager said he never trusted videos showing unknown players performing like Pele because such videos can easily be faked. I would advise the same approach before accepting videos as proof of competence. Of course there are thousands of excellent videos made by brilliant instructors offering online teaching but such instructors will happily furnish proof of their martial training.

Having chosen a good teacher you must then, to a degree, surrender yourself to his knowledge and timetable. If I were to give one piece of advice it would be to ‘work without lust of result’. In other words train because you want to learn as much as possible rather than to become the best. There can be no ‘best’ in knowledge there can only be students of knowledge. This of course means that there can be no ‘masters’ of knowledge either.

Each of us will have a portion of knowledge pertinent to ourselves and we should not be ‘jealous’ of the knowledge of others. It would avail me nought to be jealous of the knowledge of Einstein or Newton because they were giants of knowledge and I will never be that. Giants of knowledge though they were THEY WEREN’T MASTERS OF KNOWLEDGE and they knew it, that’s why they were ceaseless in their search for further knowledge. So my advice, not only to beginners but to advanced students as well, is to be ceaseless in your search for martial knowledge. That way you can have something in common with ‘giants’ like Einstein and Newton.

Lack of the aforesaid ‘jealousy’ enables me to look at other martial arts with an unbiased eye, to recognise that other martial arts can be highly effective and as good as English martial arts or as good as Fong Yang. This is important because a ‘jealous’ mind hides your own weaknesses. Before leaving this question I would like to quote Grandmaster Tan Siew Cheng who said to me when I asked a silly question ‘You will master martial arts when you master life and you will master life when you master martial arts’.

How did your martial arts training affect and influenced your research, whilst engaged in the process of single-handedly resurrecting EMA?

I have previously written about ‘knowledge’ in relation to martial arts, my quest for martial knowledge began when I had the great good fortune to meet Sifu Tan Siew Cheng who was the Grandmaster of Fong Yang Kung Fu aka the Beggars Art but more of that later. The point is that over the next thirty years that I trained with ‘Uncle’ Tan I learned a lot. Perhaps the first thing I learned was that one lifetime wasn’t enough to learn as much as I needed to know.

Normally Uncle Tan would have decided which particular forms (kwoon tolls/ katas) to teach students based on their physical build and character. Some forms were taught to all students – internal strength forms, the fierce Tiger forms, as well as Blossom Finger forms and the signature weapons of the Beggars Art which were Buanchune Kune (Manchurian Walking Stick) and Por Tay Koon (Sackcloth pole). Beyond the intermediate level (equivalent to black belt) Uncle Tan would begin to teach according to the previous definitions. Smaller students might be taught Kow Koon (Monkey Art) The powerfully built would continue with Fierce Tiger forms and and Kim Kang (Golden Strength) forms etc…There are more than eighty forms in Fong Yang Kung Fu so there were forms to suit every type of person. If you were marked out as a future instructor (gauged by effort and loyalty) then you would be taught forms that didn’t necessarily suit you but you would need to know in order to teach the Art. Thus it was that I learned Monkey Art forms which didn’t really suit my long legs. Nor did I enjoy practising Eagle Claw and numerous other forms that just didn’t suit my build or character. Altogether Uncle Tan taught me more than fifty forms of the eighty or so contained in Fong Yang kung fu. Knowing those fifty or so forms hasn’t made me a better fighter but they have made me a better teacher.

Those fifty or so forms have also given me is a unique viewpoint from which I can compare and judge the pros & cons of each family of forms. For example to compare the differences between monkey paw and white crane beak. To understand the ‘controlling’ aspects of the snake forms and so on. Not only was I able to learn the differences of the forms but the physical movement of joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles leading up to the actions in the forms.

Eventually I was able to compare hundreds of actions and understand the physiology of the movements and how they contrasted with and supported each other. This was an incredibly important ability when it came to working out the many techniques and Plays (forms/katas) of English martial arts. I didn’t have to copy any movements from kung fu or karate because those fifty plus forms had taught me how to interpret body movements. There are of course similarities, for example in Western martial arts there is a move in swordsmanship called the ‘serpentine’. This movement involves blocking an incoming sword strike with your own sword and then wrapping your left arm around your opponent’s sword arm to immobilise it. There is an almost identical movement used in Manchurian walking stick fighting, like the serpentine you block an incoming strike of the opponent’s weapon but instead of wrapping your left arm around his weapon arm you catch the wrist of his weapon arm and twist his weapon arm downwards while you strike him on the neck with your stick.

English martial arts have there own movements which, combined with the principles of English martial arts marks them out from other arts So there has never been a need for me to copy any other martial art.

What’s the difference between approaching this research as a martial artist historian, rather than a historian researching a martial art with little or no martial arts background?

An interesting question but one that is relatively easy to answer; if specialists in any given field writes a book they can largely their own experiences. Most experts will ask their peers, prior to publication, ask their peers to review their work and, if all is well, publish. However if non-specialists decide to write a book they are then compelled to ask specialists for help. This means that they are more or less forced to accept what they are told.

Books on Arms and Armour don’t discuss how weapons are used, instead they discuss such things as weights and dimensions of various weapons and armour. So if an Arms and Armour expert, for example, decided to write a ‘how to book’ about Western Martial Arts he would need to find a Western martial arts expert to consult. Nowadays there are a number of acknowledged WMA instructors that could be consulted but go back twenty years or more and WMA groups and instructors were very rare indeed. So, given the said paucity of WMA experts, someone in need of such an expert might instead go to a re-enactment group or a sports fencer! He might then, for example, be told that thrusting is superior to cutting! if your toilet doesn’t work, call a plumber, If your car breaks down call a mechanic. If you want to buy a Western martial arts ‘how to book’ make sure it is written by a recognised WMA teacher not by people who have never studied a martial art in their lives.

Have you considered releasing a follow up to your ground-breaking book?

The short answer is yes but, as John Lennon wrote ‘Life is something that happens while you are busy making other plans’. I certainly plan to but John Lennon’s views still hold 🙂

What do you envisage for EMA in the future…and for HEMA more generally?

When I first ‘discovered’ English martial arts (1980) I had no thought of writing a book or of teaching it. I was just so pleased to have heard of it, to have learned that the English had created a system every bit as effective and technical as systems from Asia. It wasn’t that I wanted to denigrate Asian martial arts, after all I had, at that time, been practising Fong Yang and also Khong Chang for thirteen years and I thoroughly enjoyed them both. It was just the sheer joy of discovering that we had emulated Asian masters and systems. However as time went on (I researched my book for 17 years) I began to understand and admire the systems which I was researching. So by the early 90’s my thoughts had turned to teaching this fantastic art. I began by drawing matchstick men depicting the techniques. Pretty soon I had three A4 folders full of matchstick men techniques. So, as strange as it sounds, I began to practise the techniques by myself, I would act as the attacker (The Agent) and then play the part of the defender (Patient Agent). But I wasn’t ready to start teaching because I knew I still had work to do.

By 1994, although my book wasn’t completed, I had found a publisher (Anglo-Saxon Books Ltd) and decided that I needed to pressure test my matchstick men techniques, so I placed a tiny advert in a Martial arts magazine and Frank replied to the advert (Anciant Maister Frank Docherty). We met and we hit it off straight away. I explained the situation viz a’ viz the matchstick techniques and Frank agreed to help me pressure test them. I don’t know who was the crazier, Frank or me but boy we really, and I mean really pressure tested everything. What we both realised, with great pleasure, was that George Silver’s methods really work and that you didn’t get injured when using his methods but we were more likely to be injured going against Silver’s methods. The same applied to Zachary Wylde’s methods and various other English masters. I discovered Frank to be a very valuable training partner when it came to pressure-testing my interpretations of Silver, Wylde and Co. Thank you Frank.

As for the future growth of English martial arts it can only ever be organic growth based on time and quality. Initially Frank didn’t want to go through the Prizing system, not because he was scared of failure and he was definitely not scared of being hurt; in fact I have never met a more fearless man than Frank, but Frank was already a highly accomplished and experienced martial artist when he started training with me and I think that Frank genuinely wasn’t interested in having any more titles of rank. However, once I explained to Frank that if he didn’t follow the route from Scholler to Maister then we couldn’t ask anyone else to follow it, he quickly realised that he should follow the that route. Tradition is important because tradition means time, the time from Scholler to Maister takes a minimum of twelve-and-a-half years. This means that students train long enough to develop the necessary skills to be a Maister. If you then consider the meaning of the term ‘kung fu’ which basically means ‘skill/time’ or ‘work/time’ you realise that both Chinese and English martial arts require their students spend a long time learning their skills.

To get back to the ‘organic’ growth of EMA it is also vital that we follow the rules of the Company of Maisters, for example there should only ever be Four Anciant Maisters. Sooner or later someone will suggest there should be five or six Anciant Maisters, or Four Anciant Maister in every country. If that was ever allowed it would lead, in a short time, to the disintegration of the Company of Maisters with groups splintering off to form their own little associations. I’ve seen this so many times; when the greedy and the ambitious persuade others to break tradition (in order to fill their own pockets and satisfy their own egos). So what we really need for organic growth of the Company of Maisters is a gradually increasing number of students who are prepared to spend many years developing their skills. These same students will then become loyal to the methods and traditions of English martial arts, so when they themselves achieve the rank of Maister. If everyone follows this then the Company of Maisters and of course English martial arts will achieve organic and therefore sustainable growth.

We should also guard against calls to modernise the art. Principles can’t be modernised because they are immutable and unchanging because people still fight exactly the same way now that they did a thousand years ago. They still use knives, mugs, feet, sticks, etc., and that’s why you can’t modernise the art.

As for the future of HEMA I have been fortunate enough to meet many of the world’s leading researchers and instructors. In every case that I know about the top researchers are also the top instructors. I have met four AAPs (Absolutely Awful Prats). Two in America and two in Britain. I now refer the reader to question 3, The bit where I referred to was about a premier team manager said he never trusted videos… because such videos can be easily faked; well one of the two British AAPs produces instruction videos and talks knowledgeably about Western martial arts but couldn’t actually fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Referring again to question 3 this person has actually no background (that I’ve heard about) in any martial art Eastern or Western. So again I remind you to check people out. Getting back to the ‘future for HEMA’ question, the vast majority of researching instructors are genuine and that means that their personal students have now become instructors and are also genuine so I would say that HEMA is going to be all right.

Have you found common misconceptions regarding English Martial Arts?

There are two that drive me absolutely bloody bonkers. The first is the ridiculous criticism that the English system of martial arts is a hand-sniping system and the second is that the English system is purely defensive. Both are absolute rubbish and totally unfounded.

Regarding the hand-sniping argument you would have been a damn fool back in the day if you didn’t hit the hand if the opportunity arose. However even a cursory glance at the works of Silver, Wylde et al shows that every other part of the body was targeted as frequently as were the hands. In fact the targets were decided on what the principles said it was safe to strike.

In relation to the accusation that the English system is a defensive system you only need to understand the principles to know that, if the principles said it was safe to attack first then you attacked first. Yet again it the principles decided, if the principles said attack then you attacked. If the principles said defend then you defended. The earliest known English martial arts manuscript, which deals with the long sword makes it very clear indeed that attacks are as common as defensive moves. Indeed any system that relied purely on ‘defensive actions’ or ‘hand sniping’ would have died out centuries ago. The English system is as attack-minded as most other traditional martial arts but the golden rule is only attack if the principles say it is safe to do so.

What common misunderstandings of the principles would you like to address? 

The Eight Times are Silver’s way of explaining the relative speeds of feet, body, and hands, or hands, body, feet. He does this so you may understand cause and effect. He gives four of those eight times as true times and says that any action that begins with the hand is a true time and any action not starting with the hand is a false time. He lists the four fastest times and he lists the four slowest times BUT remember moving in the order he says (for the fastest times) is not compulsory. There will be times when you need to use the second third or fourth fastest time. For example if he is so wide-spaced that you have time to move the hand and both feet. In effect you can ‘trump’ his false time with your true time; if your opponent uses the slowest of the false times you can use the 3rd slowest of the true times, for example, to beat him.

Terry’s book, English Martial Arts is published by Anglo Saxon Books and has been in print for over 20 years. Click HERE to get your copy. 

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