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Inner Door Student

Inner Door Students learn the Secrets YOU don’t!

wing chun kung fu Oct 10, 2023

Learning a martial art, is a vast undertaking. For the martial arts movie action enthusiast, the concept of Inner Door Student sometimes referred to as Closed Door Student is a coveted title only bestowed to a select few students in a school.  We martial arts movie enthusiasts envision that one student who lives and works at the school learning everything he can from his master. This chosen student receives all his master’s knowledge and is enabled to pass on the art and science of the system and keep the legacy alive.


We see this in the movies. We hear about this concept in martial arts lore where knowledge is passed down to family members. Why then would this not be passed down today in the same way? Why would a master today, not teach everything they know to all their students?


There are two main reasons why not all students learn the secrets of martial arts. The first is churn rate. The second is the nature of the techniques are either too complex or too dangerous for the average student….and the average student is affected by the churn rate.


Churn Rate is the simple law of attrition. Regardless of the undertaking, most people do not stick with their learning unless the tangible benefit far outweighs the work required. Which is such that 20-30% of students will drop out each year.  Couple this over time perhaps 2% of all students will achieve a black belt. That’s 2 out of 100. In many cases a new black belt is nothing more than a student with a strong foundation of all the fundamentals, and not the entire system of a martial art. The black belt student really starts to hone in their skills, and understanding of their system through years of training AFTER they receive their black belt. Not before. That’s not to say this new black belt is not skilled. In fact, to the average person their skill is very high. However, among other martial artists, who have trained for many years, that black belt is average at best.


For a martial art student to progress and be able to perform the way they envisioned when they started training takes a lot more practice. The higher the student climbs in ranks, the more forms practice they require, the more combative drills are needed to hone their fighting, and the more conditioning is required to maintain the high level of fitness and power. The average student attending martial arts training will typically last about 18 months. Then they quit. They quit because life happens. They quit because they feel they’re progressing too slowly. They may quit because they’re bored of the curriculum. They quit due to injury or illness, and then never return when they recover. Perhaps it’s a financial reason.  In some cases, the instructor does not mesh well with them. Often the student quits because they were never committed to the journey of learning martial arts and were just chasing the flash that they thought it was in the beginning. When the work required, and time commitment was viewed as a chore that student quits.  These students were not committed to the journey of becoming a martial artist. But only to what they thought was the end result of being ONE. Being a martial artist is really a constant state of Becoming. But that's a conversation for another time....


This churn rate is the real reason martial arts schools of the past, and some present-day ones still hold to the tradition of seeing students as “Outer door” and “Inner door” students. Though some schools may not use these terms, don’t be fooled they do exist.


An “Outer door” student is a student who attends classes at a martial arts school but may not be fully dedicated to the school or teacher.  They attend classes when they can. They appreciate what they are learning. But for the most part what they’re learning is more of a hobby than anything else.  There’s nothing wrong with these students, it's a blessing to have them, and they will make up most of the school’s membership. But, remember the churn rate. Most of the students will eventually leave the school within the first 18 months. Though some may stay longer, as their journey to become an Inner Door student may be longer than others. We must respect martial arts as a journey not always bound by set time, but by the time that is right for the student.


An “Inner door” student, in the traditional Chinese martial arts context, is a student who becomes a disciple through a discipleship ceremony called Bai Si (literally “Bow to Teacher”).  The Chinese context was that a disciple pledged support, loyalty, and dedication to a given style, their teacher, and school that they were becoming a disciple too. 


Becoming a disciple was not based on high skill or talent, but rather dedication, loyalty, and character. A future disciple typically, was a student with the school for three or more years and was not affiliated with another school or style. They possessed a strong discipline, and a deep understanding of the responsibilities AND consequences involved in becoming a disciple of a teacher. It was not a decision made lightly.


These ceremonies in some cases may also be viewed as adoption ceremonies because the teacher takes the student as a child, and the student views the teacher as a parent. Both showing mutual respect, obedience, and loyalty to each other.


There are in fact THREE levels of discipleship.


The FIRST kind is a student pledging support to the teacher or school. This can be done without even taking a class. In these cases, the person just wants to support the school and the teacher but is unable to attend classes.  The student bows and offers the teacher a gift, or money (lycee) in a red envelope (hong bao).  The amount of the gift is not set and may vary from student to student. This can be seen today through charitable donations and sponsors, who are not looking for monetary gain for their support of the school. Just a strong belief in the school and teacher.


The second is “Inner Door” student, or one who has entered the gates of his teacher, with more commitment and responsibility. This student is brought into the “inner” or more detailed techniques, theories, and that are not shared with common students. This may include dangerous or deadly techniques, deeper understanding of previously known techniques, lessons of how to teach, and recipes for healing.  The Inner Door student was expected to carry more responsibility, such as keeping the schools’ books, teaching, caring for the elderly teacher, or financially supporting the teacher and his family. All students were expected to pay monthly dues, but students who were disciples were expected to care for all aspects of the Sifu’s life, including bills, food, and rent. If the Sifu was having financial difficulty it was the disciple’s duty to help. One can see how this follows suit of the parent-child relationship of support as the parent became older.  A good Sifu or Teacher would have a great impact on their disciple, much more than just the art and style they passed on. As a father does to their child. The teacher wants to see their disciple become a good person, who is loyal to their school, their family, and their civic community.


Today we might see this relationship of Inner door student of Teacher-Student (Father-Child) similar in theory, but different context. The teacher does pass on the entire system, and the art and science of the style. The teacher passes on how to teach the system and style within their school. The teacher imparts wisdom, experience, and guidance to their disciple.  The teacher is a mentor, a guide, and confidant.


In return the students assist with classes, and provide help with the school, BUT are not financially obligated to support the Sifu. The students do not live at the school and eat at the school, so they are not working for their keep. Today we may see these Inner Door students as instructors at the school teaching classes with and for their Sifu. They may participate in demonstrations, and help out with up keep and order within the school.


The final level of discipleship is an inheritor of the system. This is the most serious and dedicated level. These students take on all the tasks of the Inner Door disciple, but they also dedicate themselves to propagating the system and teaching of the Sifu to future genreations. These disciples learn the art at the highest level.  These disciples are the ones today who participate in the Bai Si Ceremony, where they bow to their teacher AND present Hong Bao with a monetary gift inside.  


They may also provide other means of helping their Sifu out through the skills and gifts they may have available to them. In modern times they might help their Sifu with business strategies, marketing efforts, referrals, and demonstrations. The disciple may use their gifts and skills to help the Sifu’s school grow and become better, so the Sifu’s school can continue to positively impact more lives.


These students may someday find themselves moving away from their Sifu and beginning to teach and represent the style to others who have never seen their style or system before. This level of discipleship today might be referred to as the “Inner Circle.”  Where the select few within it support the System/Style of their Sifu, dedicate themselves to preserving the art of it, and support each other in doing so…regardless of distance.

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