What makes a martial art traditional? I suspect that the answer could fill a book and still be unsatisfactory. But it is worth exploring the idea of “tradition” as a concept. For every martial art, we can ask a series of questions to help determine whether it can be considered traditional.

1. How old is the martial art?

The first and most obvious component of a traditional martial art is age. It’s hard to say what the minimum age would be, but it’s safe to say that a 5 year-old martial art is not traditional. The age of a martial art matters because if it was not developed under strict, unforgiving circumstances, we have reason to doubt it. These strict, unforgiving circumstances are much harder to find in the modern world. With age also comes the endorsement of many generations of practitioners. Therefore there is arguably a (weak) correlation between age and quality. That’s why no one trusts a martial art that some guy developed in his backyard last week. I call this factor “historical legitimacy.” I don’t think that a style necessarily needs historical legitimacy to be traditional, but a non-traditional style is unlikely to have historical legitimacy.

Some would say that it’s not about age per se, but rather the era which the martial art came from. Maybe age is less important than the fact that the martial art was developed before gunpowder was invented. Or maybe the dividing line is at the industrial age, or the 20th century, etc. Some people would argue that “tradition” cannot exist in the modern world in the same way that chivalry or old-fashioned artisanship cannot. This would be a pretty cynical view of the present.

However, it can be difficult to determine the founding date of a martial art. Martial arts are full of legends, spurious claims, and misconceptions passed down from generation to generation. Not all teachers have a clear sense of history or the tendency to think critically, and not all students are willing to risk disrespecting their teachers by asking skeptical questions. In a lot of cases, we simply don’t know. History hates a vacuum, and when we don’t know something, there is always someone willing to guess.

2.Is the martial art consistent with its predecessors?

Age isn’t enough; consistency is the other important component of tradition. In order to be traditional, a martial art must be consistent with its predecessors. If a martial art changed so much that it is unrecognizable, then how can it be part of the same tradition? And if a martial art is not representative of its original form, how can it claim legitimacy from its age or era of origin?

But not all kinds of consistency are equal. In order to know whether a martial art is consistent with the past, there are three more questions we can ask:

2a.   How much has it changed?

2b.   How quickly did that change take place?

2c.   How important were the elements which changed?

The first question has to do with the quantity of change. The second deals with the rate of change. The third concerns itself with the subject of change. Sometimes the answers to these questions make our job easy. For example, if the most important elements of a martial art changed a large amount over a short period of time, then it’s obvious that the martial art has broken from tradition. In other cases, it’s not nearly so clean-cut. Here are a few cases where a judgment call is necessary:

Kendo is an example of a large quantity of change but a slow rate of change. Kendo has slowly evolved from classical Japanese swordsmanship to the point where it is nearly unrecognizable, yet there was no point at which Kendo suddenly broke from tradition. Those who argue that Kendo is traditional probably do so by claiming that the core principles remained the same throughout Kendo’s evolution. In other words, that the subject of change was relatively unimportant. Others might argue Kendo’s most important elements changed enough that Kendo is fundamentally different from its predecessors and therefore no longer part of the same tradition.

Judo is an example of a fast rate of change with a relatively small quantity of change. Judo made a sharp break with earlier traditions by changing many aspects of the art all at once. However, the changes were relatively small compared to Kendo. I don’t know whether Judo changed critical elements of its predecessor arts, but I suspect that it did. If that is true, then Judo would have broken from previous traditions.

I would say that neither Judo nor Kendo is consistent with its predecessors, but both arts succeeded in forming new traditions. In a sense, Judo could still be considered a traditional martial art, but one which dates no further back than 1882. Is that too young to be a real tradition? That’s a matter of opinion.

Now we have identified a series of questions whose answers can help us determine whether a martial art is traditional. But when we talk about consistency, another kind of question arises: Why do we assume that change is bad? In other words, what about progress? Certainly it’s possible for a martial art to become better over time. In fact, as a martial art ages, it is ever more likely to be refined and perfected. Progress is the strongest argument against traditionalism because progress means change, and change is always at odds with tradition. A traditional martial art is one which tends to assume that change is bad, that it is better to defer to the wisdom of prior generations. Bruce Lee became the standard-bearer for progressive martial artists because he trusted his own judgment more than he trusted the doctrines of traditional martial arts. He changed these martial arts freely, and many people called that progress. Others were skeptical. Everyone agrees that progress is good, but not everyone agrees that change is progress.

And now for the million-dollar question: How do we know whether a change is good or bad?

The short answer is that we don’t. Not with any real degree of certainty, at any rate. I imagine that you will be dissatisfied with that answer. You will want to trust your own judgment. But I’m not convinced that you can do that, at least not before achieving a certain level of expertise. To make your own judgment would be to assume that you already have all the information you need in order to make a decision. That is quite an assumption, and contrary to the spirit of humility. On the other hand, it’s important to think independently, rather than relying on a teacher to spoonfeed you ideas. I don’t know how to solve this dilemma. For now, I believe that we can safely say that change is non-traditional, and that a non-traditional art is one which lacks historical legitimacy.