People like to make a big deal about lineage. Because martial arts lessons are an “experience good” (meaning you have to experience the good before you can judge its quality), one might think a “lineage” is therefore a “signal” of quality, a sort of “brand promise”. There is a point about knowledge transmission in a direct “line” yet of course it’s quite a bit of nonsense as well looked at from more angles. The next generation doesn’t necessarily have the same qualifications just because they were the master’s child or best student. Whatever other factors that forged a master’s greatness may not be there (actually is necessarily not there since times and circumstances have changed) for this poor individual carrying this weight on his or her shoulders.

The other day I read a great article about Michael Jordan’s son, a first year walk-on for the Illini. No one is expecting him “to be like Mike” yet he is seen as having much potential to be a big contributor by his junior year. By his real contribution, he is just another player on the team, but by his father’s fame, he is accorded special treatment by the press, requiring separate press conferences sometimes. Of course, the “access to information” he can get from the greatest player ever is seen as increasing his potential. Still, he was not offered college basketball scholarships and is not seen as the next Michael Jordan. No one proclaims him to be the “heir” to “his airness”.

Of course, we say to ourselves, that makes sense. But then, why isn’t that obvious with martial arts lineages as well, in direct family lines or to senior students outside a “system”? Why don’t we only seek to learn from the direct lineage of Jigoro Kano? I don’t even know any other names of the Kanos. In his case (maybe the only one that’s lasted so long), his art transcended any lineage and even spawned at least two other related great arts directly or indirectly (bjj and sambo). So you might say that the Gracies and even Fedor is really in one of these “lines” all the way back to Kano, and therefore back to various jujutsu ryu and so on, but then “lineage” is no longer lineage in the sense of one unbroken line.

This idea of “the One” who absorbed all of the master’s teaching and only he or she can pass on that full greatness and genius is ridiculous. What if instead of Michael’s son, Michael Jordan “passed his secret transmissions” to some other senior student individual, the person who now must carry the mantle for the greatest basketball knowledge and skills on earth? Of course, that’s also ridiculous. We’d feel sorry for that person if that were true.

We can know from even casually following the NBA that the next great talent can come from anywhere around the world, even from a non “dynasty” college, high school, or some kind of lineage. Sure, sure, basketball is a team sport, but obviously, factors like sources of motivation, other obstacles and so on are more important than just this lineage question.

I’m not saying if I were one of the top 14 year old players I wouldn’t be trying to go to a top college or directly into an NBA team, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t try to seek out and learn from famous martial lineages or to learn basketball from Jordan’s kids or Ali’s kids (like Laila), and I’m certainly not criticizing any specific lineage or lineage holder or individual, but when I read about Jordan’s son, I couldn’t help relating that to this thing about lineage.

There isn’t necessarily an “heir” to “his airness” and that is true about any other “top master” in any other sport or art. Tiger Wood’s kids won’t necessarily be as great as Tiger. Sure maybe they will be good pros, and I’d still want to learn from them, but they are not necessarily going to be at the same level. Over many generations, “dilution” and decline may happen. Putting too much stock in a lineage or even the concept just contributes to the decline.

Genius in the next generations just doesn’t manifest itself that way as the obvious and natural course of things, as much as we want to believe there may be something there inherited directly that lasts through multiple generations. In 100 years if someone said they learned basketball from Michael’s grandkid, the new “grandmaster” of the “Jordan system”, what would that mean, if anything? Is that where the next Michael, the next Kobe, the next Lebron, and so on, will come from? Possibly, but unlikely. Does anyone have to learn from a direct line from Helio Gracie to master bjj, or from Kano to master judo, from Fedor to master combat sambo and mma, from Mas Oyama to master kyokushin, or from Wang Xiangzhai to master yiquan?

For an art to improve rather than decline, it needs to transcend the original lineage and the original lineage idea – it might have some “rules”, some “systems” etc. but then it has to keep evolving. Perhaps Wang was somewhat unique in IMA in that he seems to be the only master/founder who said something like that rather than holding on to the past. The art also has to prove itself in some bigger arena, like judo in the Tokyo police competition, Wang against his contemporaries, Gracie JJ in mma, etc. That is why the students rush to a particular art and the students are the ones who will keep it “alive” and not “dead” over the long haul. From reading web comments from the IMA community, perhaps that is still possible with yiquan in san shou, but it seems impossible for the “Big 3” IMA in the current state of things.