When you learn a martial art, you are not learning its “true” form. At least, not right away.

Martial arts are too complex to learn without any simplification. It’s the same reason that we begin with addition and subtraction before moving on to more complex mathematics. These building blocks are supposed to enhance the learning process. If someone already knows how to fight, they don’t need to deconstruct their fighting method in order to use it. If they were self-taught, then they may have never been exposed to a deconstructed version to begin with. Although you might deconstruct the art to improve your own personal understanding, it’s never necessary until you want to teach it.

A martial art gets many of its distinctive characteristics from the way that it is deconstructed. For example, when I studied Wing Chun, we used a surprising amount of body tension. You need tension to make sure that your structure is solid and that it protects you where it needs to. However, my teacher did not believe that Wing Chun is ultimately a tense art. He told me that it is better to exaggerate the tension in the beginning so that you’re sure that you have proper structure, and that you can learn to relax it as you progress. You could come into that class and say “Wow, Wing Chun uses a lot of body tension.” However, that characteristic is only representative of the art in its fledgling state, not its ultimate state. What seems like a distinctive characteristic is really just a by-product of the teaching method.

In reality, there are other possibilities. Another Wing Chun teacher of mine taught us to be soft from the very beginning, emphasizing relaxation over structure. He might say that the first teacher’s method teaches you to be overly rigid, while the first teacher might think that the softer method leaves you unprotected. In either case, their goal is the same, but they have deconstructed the art in different ways based on their different priorities. As a result, these two versions of Wing Chun appear different at the lower levels but should converge at the higher levels.

What are the logical consequences of this? Let’s begin with two premises:

1. A martial art gets some of its distinctive characteristics from the way that it is deconstructed.

2. A deconstructed martial art is supposed to be reconstructed. In other words, it is ultimately practiced in a different way that it is taught to beginners.

If the above two statements are true, then some of the distinctive characteristics of martial arts are by-products of the teaching process which do not apply to the art in its ultimate form. Notice that I say “some” distinctive characteristics. How much is “some?” That depends on the degree to which martial arts are convergent or divergent.

Now, let me define those terms:

Convergent – Martial arts are convergent when they produce the same result. In other words, they are different paths up the same mountain.

Divergent – Martial arts are divergent when each one produces different results.

If martial arts are highly divergent, then there are many distinctive characteristics which are not by-products of teaching methods. On the other hand, if all martial arts are highly convergent, then there are ultimately very few distinctive characteristics of any martial art. In this case, style is essentially synonymous with teaching method.

With that in mind, the The next question is “How convergent or divergent are martial arts?”
I think we can agree that martial arts are not purely divergent, for the following reasons:

  • Human bodies don’t vary drastically.
  • The laws of physics hold true everywhere.
  • Effective methods have often been invented independently by different groups.
  • Martial arts are forced to respond to most of the same problems.
  • The “form” of a martial art is always secondary to its effectiveness.
    • In other words, fighters must respond to the reality of the fight rather than approaching the fight with rigid and/or preconceived ideas about how the fight should go. They can’t force their own dogmas on a fight and come out successful.

However, I think we can also agree that martial arts are not purely convergent either:

  • Martial arts have different priorities.
  • Martial arts are developed in and for different circumstances.
    • Ex. They may be optimized for civilians, military, self-defense, formal dueling, etc.
  • Some martial arts have adapted to situational restrictions, such as competitions or legal requirements.
  • Some martial arts use weapons peculiar to a certain place and/or time.
  • Martial arts have different underlying philosophies, worldviews, and ideas about what is possible.

Because martial arts are not purely divergent, some of the distinctive characteristics are by-products of the teaching process. But because martial arts are not purely convergent either, not all of the distinctive characteristics are by-products. This doesn’t do much to answer the question “How convergent or divergent are martial arts?” but it’s a start.

What sort of distinctive characteristics might be simplified? All forms, scripted techniques, training exercises, and sequences of any kind are deconstructions. Let’s take sequences as an example. A martial art may produce a given sequence of motions, but that does not mean that a martial art is a collection of sequential techniques. A martial art provides a dynamic system for decision-making. If a martial art is an algorithm, then a sequence is its output. To learn the output is not the same as learning the algorithm. We learn sequences of techniques in order to learn what the “algorithm” is supposed to produce, but those sequences are not goals in and of themselves. Our goal is to learn the ultimate form of a martial art.

Once all of the deconstructions from an art have been removed, only pure martial art remains. Maybe the ultimate expression of a martial art is a system of principles. Maybe it’s not even as restrictive as that. When you try to pin down the essence of a martial art, I think you begin to see the truth behind the famous quotation from Bruce Lee:

” 以无法为有法,以无限为有限 “

 “Use no way as way; use no limitation as limitation.”