Archives for category: tradition

In my attempts to speak philosophically about martial arts, I have failed in one colossal way: I haven’t properly defined what a “martial art” is. I’ve tried, of course, but it seems to be a fool’s errand. A martial art is a big idea, filled with lots of tiny moving parts. Any definition broad enough to encapsulate every martial art would be as near to meaningless as makes no difference. Instead, I’m going to address the thing that all martial arts have in common.

A martial art is, among other things, a method of fighting. But exactly is a fighting method? There are two possible answers. A fighting method is a collection of either

a. physical responses for hypothetical confrontations

b. abstract martial principles to be followed in combat or in training

Both types of fighting methods may exist, but the latter idea interests me more. I’m not at all sure that it’s true, or that any value of truth or falsehood can be assigned to the idea. But it strikes me as a useful way of looking at things, and for that reason I like to keep it handy.

The Nucleus

For a fighting method to be more than a collection of physical techniques, it must have a set of principles at its core. Those principles should be coherent, internally consistent, and based on the laws of physics. Physical techniques are simply expressions of those principles, but those principles can be expressed in infinite ways.

In martial arts, people tend to get caught up in the particular teaching methods that have been passed down over generations. Every technique or sequence is a tool for teaching, not a set response to be recited in the event of a fight. Every technique contains the core principles, but the techniques themselves are secondary.

Fight by Numbers

It’s like algebra. Algebra is an abstract concept with a simple premise: You can solve for any single unknown value by using variables to represent them in an equation. If there are multiple unknown values, you can manipulate the equation to discover their mathematical relationship to one another. This is the fundamental idea behind algebra, and we all learn a system of axioms and theorems which teach us how to accomplish that goal. When we learn algebra, we learn a series of specific lessons. However, no single lesson is algebra in itself. The lessons are merely examples.

Once you understand the concepts – how to manipulate variables in an equation – you can forget about the examples. You can make your own examples, expressing the principles of algebra in an infinite number of equations. You can even pass on exactly the same core principles without ever repeating the specific lessons that you were taught.

But on the other hand, if you don’t understand the core principles, then you’re stuck with those lessons. How could you discard them? What if you had missed some critical detail? It would be like a math teacher who doesn’t understand long division, so he memorizes his teacher’s entire long division lesson. He thinks: Maybe if I pass on the whole lesson to my students, they’ll figure it out on their own. But of course, this is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Yet another reason why a good teacher is so important.

A Finger Pointing at the Moon

If we could learn the core principles of a martial art directly, then most of us would elect to do so. Sometimes that’s possible. But for the rest of the time, we have to settle for an oblique approach, learning the rules by example like a yankee at a cricket match. For the student, particular techniques and sequences are very important; they are the vehicles of the core principles, the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon. But the teacher doesn’t need a vehicle anymore. He already knows where the moon is, presumably, so his job is to provide students with the vehicles that they need by expressing the principles in ways which demonstrate their value.

Yet again, I find myself undermining traditionalists. But fear not, gentle antiquarians, for I shall not defeat myself so easily. Certainly a free-thinking teacher could dispose of all pre-made techniques and sequences and, according to my logic, his art would be no worse for it. I acknowledge that possibility, but I equally acknowledge its improbability. How do we know when we’re finished learning? How do we know that the “moon” is where we think it is? When does a teacher know enough that he can apply his own judgment over that of his teacher’s? In the broad sense, I have no answer for this question. But for the great unwashed masses which constitute the rest of us, the answer is quite simple: Not yet.


During my time in China, I often found myself in crowded marketplaces, walking among the tourists and flanked on either side by vendors. Tourists being what they are, the vendors kept them well-occupied with foreign trinkets. Booth after booth offered the same mass-produced items: misspelled t-shirts, tea sets, calligraphy brushes, and an endless supply of watches.

Watches have become a staple of the Chinese souvenir industry. Although the official name-brand outlets are there for those who have the money, Chinese street vendors have earned a reputation for selling counterfeits. I was interested to discover that what was once pure deceit has now become a selling point; tourists enjoy the novelty of a fake Rolex or Omega. Nevertheless, the vendors still swear by the authenticity of their name brand watches.

Those markets are not unlike the world of martial arts, as authentic martial arts are no less elusive than a genuine Rolex on the streets of Beijing.

Martial arts are consistently misrepresented, in the media and in person, intentionally and unintentionally, by students and teachers alike. This misrepresentation stems from ignorance of the fact that most martial arts have undergone drastic changes in response to modernity. Those that survived the invention of gunpowder found themselves confronted with a new form of Darwinism: the commercial market. Modern martial arts have been selected for commercial viability after being imported from another time and place, their content filtered by cherry-picking foreigners. Are they worthy of our trust? Can we be confident that every one of our predecessors has been a responsible caretaker of these martial arts? I submit that we cannot, and that the world of martial arts can claim no better track record for authenticity than the average tourist market in China.

This has been the most demoralizing realization of my martial arts career.


What Does it Mean to be Authentic?

Let’s take a moment to critically examine the concept of authenticity. An authentic martial art is one which is what it claims to be, whether that claim is explicit or implicit. A martial art need not be traditional to be authentic, but it does need to be authentic in order to be traditional. I use this definition because it doesn’t require us to agree on what is valuable in a martial art. For example, there is nothing inauthentic about a modern martial sport like Western boxing, so long as its exponents don’t claim to represent anything more than a particular fisticuffs competition.

We cannot make blanket statements like “Martial art X is/isn’t authentic” without first clarifying the question. For example, if we ask: “Is Karate an authentic representation of the way that samurai fought?” then the answer is a resounding no. However, some types of Karate are representative of the way that some Okinawan peasants fought, so in that sense, those types of Karate are authentic. Thus the very same art may be considered authentic or inauthentic depending on the claims of its teachers. And it is these claims that are the source of inauthenticity, not the arts in themselves.


The Self-Taught Instructor and the Americanized Martial Art

When I began practicing martial arts, it didn’t occur to me to question their authenticity. I spent five years practicing an ill-defined system of Western swordsmanship, my first martial art. It wasn’t until I left that I realized that the instructor had been creating his own system as he went along. To make matters worse, the weapons that we practiced with were padded and unrealistic. No doubt this was for reasons of safety and cost, but it came at the expense of technique. There was nothing authentic about that class, and a self-taught instructor cannot claim to represent any authentic lineage.

That was a case of an instructor misleading his students, but in other cases, students have their own misguided expectations to blame. My first unarmed martial was Kenpo Karate, an odd mixture of influences which came to me through Ed Parker’s lineage. The teacher was a great motivator and storyteller, regaling his students with legends of famous martial artists. We heard about masters from all times and places, from ninjas and samurai to enlightened warrior-monks and the Boxer rebels. Almost none of these people were actually practicing Kenpo, but it didn’t matter. He made us feel connected to them anyway. Some of the more impressionable students even professed to adopt their values. But despite all of this motivational talk, we weren’t really learning the skills that we were romanticizing. We were only training one hour per week in an Americanized martial art.

I used to disdain Americanized martial arts, safe in the assumption that I was immune to that criticism. Later, I realized just how Americanized my Kenpo really was. The art had been intentionally and thoroughly changed on several occasions over the past century. The Kenpo that I studied wasn’t the art of ancient warriors; it was completely modern. What we learned wasn’t necessarily incorrect, but it was not at all representative of any premodern martial art. In this case, we were not misled by our instructor so much as our own misconceptions.


Broken Lineage

And then there is the problem of lineage. Any school which claims to teach a traditional martial art cannot be authentic without the appropriate pedigree. I recently found a school in my area offering instruction in Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. The school teaches traditional martial arts using traditional teaching methods, and I came very close to enrolling. However, they traced their lineage back to Sugawara Tetsutaka, and my research gave rise to some uncomfortable questions.

A few decades ago, there was a famous split between the headmaster, Otake Risuke, and his student, Sugawara. Otake and Sugawara had a falling out, and Sugawara lost the right to teach the art. However, Sugawara continued teaching nonetheless. Sugawara is widely considered to be a qualified teacher, and was expected to receive the second of two teaching certifications from Otake. However, by losing the headmaster’s endorsement, Sugawara’s lineage lost its legitimacy. Naturally, some martial artists have accused Sugwara’s critics of splitting hairs.

Dr. Karl Friday, a historian and holder of menkyo kaiden in Kashima Shinryu, addressed the debate:

At a minimum, it’s inaccurate and just plain wrong to identify oneself as studying or having studied a koryû art, unless the ryûha headmaster would agree that this is in fact what you’ve been doing. Any other study of a ryûha’s arts needs to be called something else.

Dr. Friday’s full response is worth reading, and can be found here.

For this particular Katori Shinto Ryu class, its authenticity was dependent on Sugawara’s credentials. By itself, this would have been bad enough. But in addition to the issues with Sugawara’s lineage, the head teacher at this school wasn’t certified by anyone. Rather, he had spent seven years learning the art by training with a teacher who only came into town a few times per year.

Is this Katori Shinto Ryu? On a technical level, maybe it is. But Katori Shinto Ryu has a very clear requirement that teachers be certified and personally authorized by the headmaster. To bypass this requirement is to cherry-pick among the traditional elements of Katori Shinto Ryu, elements which have been passed down with the art for over five hundred years. It pains me to think that a student would be so presumptuous as to impose his own standards on such a relic, or so uncritical as to think that he is qualified to override the opinions of twenty generations of headmasters. In the case of koryu, authenticity is not merely a question of technique. Authenticity means abiding by all of the traditions of the art, especially those traditions regarding how the art is passed on to students.


Authenticity Among Dead Traditions

At this point, I hope that some of you have already spotted some holes in this idea of authenticity. Authenticity may be clean-cut when we’re dealing with disingenuous teachers or naive students, but some martial arts pose problems for a black and white distinction.

A plate from a 1606 Italian rapier manual by Salvator Fabris. Historical European martial arts are dependent on manuals like these.

Can dead traditions ever be considered authentic? The world of historical European martial arts grapples with this problem on a regular basis, as those arts are based on centuries-old martial arts manuals and other written records. For example, if I study a 17th century Italian rapier system, but my teacher had to teach himself using the primary sources, is that an authentic martial art? Certainly his sources are reliable, but every teacher must make his own interpretations and take liberties with the text. Furthermore, not all historical manuals train their readers to teach the system to others. Can we really say that these teachers can rightfully claim to be teaching 17th century Italian rapier?

Yet on the other hand, those manuals have been written by the masters themselves, not passed down orally over hundreds of years. Oral traditions have a tendency to distort ideas over time, whereas historical European martial arts have the rare privilege of seeing the exact words of the masters. With a careful and critical interpretation, the rapier teacher’s art could be considered more authentic than arts which lack the benefit of such a time capsule.


Conflicting Opinions

So far, we have mostly ignored the issue of technique. But in order to authentically represent a martial tradition, a martial artist cannot deviate too far from the technical norms of that tradition. However, this idea comes with its own problems.

What about those who can’t agree on proper form for their martial art? When I lived in Beijing, I studied with a Wing Chun teacher who routinely criticized other Wing Chun teachers for their improper form. He lamented that four years of his own training had been wasted on learning from just such a teacher.

In the case of Wing Chun, there is no single headmaster or organization to arbitrate these disputes. We are left to fend for ourselves, to grope in the dark for a working definition of “proper” or “correct.” At first glance, this seems to be as petty an issue as “to-may-to” and “to-mah-to,” neither possible to answer nor worth the effort to try. But though the search for correctness may be futile, it is not unimportant. When teachers of the same art declare each other’s technique to be ineffective, the seeds of doubt find a new and fertile home. No matter who I agree with, I have reason to fear that a more qualified teacher will one day tell me that my time has been wasted. And he may very well be right.


Authentic Legacies

Why does any of this matter? Is it relevant whether a martial art is authentic? If it works just as well, isn’t everything else secondary? I am actually quite sympathetic to this argument, and I would subscribe to it completely were it not for the following two problems.

First of all, we cannot make the assumption that an inauthentic martial art will not have lost some of its functionality. Let’s return for a moment to the Rolex analogy. Practical-minded buyers might say that there is no sense in demanding a real Rolex when the imitation performs the same function just as well. But, of course, on closer inspection we know that the Rolex will operate with far more precision than its doppelganger. For a wristwatch, the difference may be minute(forgive me), but for a martial art, subtle differences in technique or training may have grave consequences.

Second, we must dispense with the idea that we actually know how effective a martial art is before committing to the art in the long term. I discussed this subject in some detail in my earlier entry “Choosing a martial art: The fundamental problems. Choosing an art based on its effectiveness is akin to choosing a religion based on its likelihood of getting you into heaven. By the time you know whether your choice is right, it’s far too late to change your mind.

Since effectiveness cannot be part of our criteria, let’s turn our attention to those secondary concerns.

I want to practice the martial arts that I read about. If I take an interest in Taijiquan, I want to be able to practice that art. I don’t want to practice some New Age hybrid of Taiji, Yoga, and interpretive dance. If I learn about Katori Shinto Ryu, one of the oldest extant martial arts in the world, I don’t want to practice a modern variant or an off-brand imitation.

A fake Rolex may still tell the time, but that doesn’t make it a Rolex. I’d rather have a cheaper watch that can actually back up its claims.

You could say that I covet martial arts, perhaps just another object of desire for my modern materialism. But I want to practice the martial arts which have earned their reputations. These are the arts that have passed down fighting skills for centuries. These are the rare traditions which have not been adulterated by commercialism or modernity. While the frugal among us may choose the convenient imitation, that is not the stuff of history and legend. For the imitation is just that, a pale shadow of that which ignites our passion.

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.