Choosing a martial art is an important decision. Real expertise does not come from switching martial arts every few years; it requires a long-term commitment. In some ways, choosing a martial art is like choosing a spouse: You can play the field while you’re young, but you won’t develop a deep, meaningful connection if you never attempt a committed relationship. Likewise, your criteria for choosing a one night stand (hopefully) would not be the same as your criteria for choosing the mother of your children.

I am still searching for the right martial art to study in the long term. In searching, I have discovered that there are some questions that every martial artist should ask, and some harsh realities of which every martial artist should be aware. Without these questions, we are simply letting whim and chance choose our martial art. The choice is too important for that. So let’s begin with the first question, and perhaps the most obvious one:

How do I know that a martial art is effective?

There are two ways to directly determine whether a martial art is effective: Observation and training.

Observation

My first instinct would be to observe a martial art in order to see whether it’s effective. But can I rely on observation? Effectiveness is difficult to see, especially if I don’t already have experience. The most refined techniques are often the most subtle. This is why realistic martial arts are never portrayed in movies or television; it’s usually not very impressive to watch. Even if effective technique wasn’t so subtle, how could I observe an authentic, unrestrained expression of a martial art? I can’t witness effectiveness in real combat without putting the practitioners in harm’s way (and doing it enough times to be certain). Therefore, observation is unreliable.

Training

My next option is to train in a martial art in order to determine its effectiveness. Training is more reliable than observation, but it also has its problems. Some arts are better suited for short term results; others are suited for the long term. If I am only evaluating the art based on short-term results, I’ll likely favor the sort of arts which MMA has popularized. If I am evaluating the art based on long-term results, what’s the point of the evaluation? I want to know whether a martial art is good before putting in the sort of time and effort required to achieve long term results. Furthermore, long-term training still doesn’t help if I don’t have long-term experience in other arts to compare it with. Therefore, evaluation through training is either unreliable or impractical.

Neither of these direct methods are adequate ways to judge a martial art’s effectiveness. Long-term training is useful overall, but it cannot tell me what I need to know about an art before committing to it.

Since direct methods won’t work, maybe I can supplement our knowledge with indirect methods. There are several indirect reasons why I might believe that a martial art is effective:

1. Someone else tells me that the martial art is effective

2. I have faith that the martial art is effective

3. The martial art was practiced by a person of extraordinary ability or knowledge

4. The martial art survived an unforgiving environment

1. Someone else tells me that the martial art is effective
The first reason makes sense if I don’t have much personal experience. Why not trust the opinion of someone who knows more than I do? By relying on an expert, I can benefit from long-term training experience without making the commitment yourself. Experts can be reliable if you choose them correctly. But how do I know who to trust? Is it better to trust someone who challenges my beliefs or someone who seems to agree with what I already know? Is it better to trust someone I know personally or a more experienced stranger? Is it better to trust a book or a person in the flesh? What about teachers who stand to make a profit – are they reliable sources of information? And no matter who I choose, there will almost always be someone else out there who disagrees with them. If I choose to rely on the opinions of others, I will not have solved the problem of uncertainty.

2. I have faith that the martial art is effective

Next, there is faith, always a popular option. Some people maintain their confidence in an idea regardless of the evidence. For some, this is acceptable. For others, like me, faith is completely incompatible with rationality. I hope that you do not choose this option unconsciously or lightly. But even if you do, there remains a problem: How do you choose what to have faith in? I could have faith that the greatest martial art in world history originated in suburban New Jersey. I could have faith in the claims of every martial artist on YouTube. I could have faith that Ueshiba Morihei was a small but mostly domesticated tortoise. All of these beliefs can be equally sustained through faith, but it stands to reason that faith does not spring into existence arbitrarily. People don’t just suddenly develop faith in an idea. Ideas are usually based on some form of inductive reason, however questionable their logic may be. It is only when those ideas are called into question that faith comes into the picture. Faith allows people to avoid revising their ideas in the face of evidence to the contrary. If you have faith in something, do yourself a favor and trace the origin of your belief. A belief based on faith is not necessarily incorrect, but faith is by definition the least reliable option.

3. The martial art was practiced by a person of extraordinary ability or knowledge

When a martial art is practiced by an extraordinary martial artist, I can take that as a sign of its effectiveness. Let’s take Bruce Lee as an example. Many people believe that Wing Chun is effective because Bruce Lee practiced it. Other people believe that Jeet Kune Do and/or Jun Fan Gong Fu are effective for the same reason. Bruce Lee had amazing abilities and/or knowledge, therefore his methods must be effective, right? Of course, it’s not that simple. There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, I should not assume that everyone can achieve the same results as he did. What makes me think that his martial art was even responsible for those results? Second, how do I know that he was so extraordinary? There are good reasons to think that he wasn’t (exaggeration, media hype, etc). Look closely at the stories they tell about famous martial artists and you can see a striking parallel with the stories told about prophets or miracle men. Jesus walked on water; Bruce Lee knocked a grown man down with a one-inch punch. Ultimately, the authority of any famous martial artist depends on their list of achievements. But reputation is built on hearsay, not actual credentials. Because of these problems, I cannot reliably determine whether a martial art is effective based on its famous practitioners.

4. The martial art survived an unforgiving environment

The final reason is the most interesting to me. A martial art is likely to be effective if it survived an unforgiving environment. An unforgiving environment is one which allows as little inefficiency as possible. You could call this the Darwinian argument. For example, Taijiquan was used by the Chinese military. If the military found Taijiquan to be effective under the real stresses of combat, then I have reason to believe that Taijiquan is effective. War is a good example of an unforgiving environment, but don’t forget that not all martial arts are intended for the battlefield. Civil disorder could be a good crucible as well. For example, Krav Maga was created by a Jewish man who learned to defend himself against anti-Semites in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. If I want to know whether a martial art survived an unforgiving environment, I need to understand when a martial art was founded, and under what circumstances. This is usually more difficult for older martial arts. But even if I don’t know the circumstances in which it was founded, a martial art may have passed through a crucible later in its existence as well.

This seems simple enough. But here we come to a harsh reality about martial arts: Very few extant martial arts have survived an unforgiving environment.

Truly unforgiving environments are rare in the modern world. Modern weapons make most martial arts unnecessary. Therefore, inefficiency can be tolerated. Let’s take the US Marine Corps as an example. Every Marine is taught to fight unarmed. But if the Marines use these methods of fighting during wartime, that does not tell me much, because Marines try to never fight unarmed. When it comes to firearms, the USMC has tremendous authority. When it comes to fighting without guns, I’d rather listen to someone else. It’s even worse when you look at swordsmanship or other obsolete weapon arts. Modern environments are usually not conducive to developing unarmed martial arts, or pre-modern weapon arts. This is why people like me tend to look for older martial arts.

Unfortunately, martial arts are much younger than most people believe. There are extremely few extant Japanese martial arts from before the Edo period(1603-1868), during which time there was no war. Japan is not alone in this. The martial arts of the Shaolin temple are often recognized as some of the oldest in the world, yet there is no solid evidence of their existence prior to the 16th century. When you think about it, it’s amazing than an orally-transmitted tradition has even lasted this long.

Among the older martial arts that survived, most have been modernized or have otherwise changed dramatically. These aren’t the arts of ancient warriors, or even from the days before firearms. When we take these changes into account, nearly every martial art that you’ve ever heard of is younger than one hundred and fifty years old. Many are less than fifty years old. Let me give you a few tangible examples. Almost every internationally-known Japanese martial art(Judo, Aikido, Kendo, Karate, etc) was created or modernized during the cultural upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although each art traces its roots back hundreds of years, none of them are representative of historical Japanese(or Okinawan) martial arts. They have become some of the most popular martial arts in the world, yet they are absolutely modern. These martial arts can’t rely on their history for legitimacy. They have changed too much.

It can be useful to ask whether a martial art survived an unforgiving environment. However, once you account for age and change over time, the answer is almost always no.

After weighing my options, there’s really only one conclusion that I came come to: For a prospective student, it is functionally impossible to judge the effectiveness of an art with any real degree of reliability. The implications of this have haunted me for years. Direct methods are flawed and indirect methods can’t make up for that. Yet though there is no such thing as true certainty, our judgments can be more or less justified. The point of this discussion is to examine martial arts using all the tools available. Most people would be satisfied with just one or two of these methods. But if you want to study a martial art in the long term, this is an important decision. Choose wisely.

Advertisements