Archives for posts with tag: philosophy

As a martial arts junkie, I often find myself comparing concepts between different martial arts. Whenever I can, I like to adapt what I’ve learned in one martial art to make me better at another. I like to think that my experience with prior martial arts can help me learn other martial arts by applying concepts that I already know. But when I do this, I often run into problems. Whenever you try to import a concept from one martial art to another or compare ideas across martial arts, you are likely to run into trouble. Why is this?

Right away, one thing is clear: Sometimes different martial arts conceive of similar ideas very differently. For example, Wing Chun traditionally teaches six and a half point pole techniques as if they were extensions of unarmed techniques. On the other hand, there are other martial arts which teach very similar long staff techniques without pairing it with unarmed martial arts at all. If you were to examine the reasoning behind the techniques of Wing Chun or these other martial arts, you would probably find that they are very asymmetrical and difficult to compare, despite their similar jurisdictions. Why? Some would say it’s a matter of comparing apples and oranges. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying reasons for their asymmetry.

It’s easiest to examine and compare concepts when they are deconstructed as much as possible. When we deconstruct concepts, they tend to become more specific and less inclusive(more limited in scope). For example, if I say that “spirit” is important in martial arts, I am allowing that concept to remain broad and vague. If I say that it is important for a martial artist to cultivate spiritual strength, then I am a little more clear and specific. More specifically, I could say something like “a martial artist can increase his awareness and mental acuity by engaging in meditative exercises.” This last statement is the most deconstructed, and the easiest to analyze. However, it is also relatively narrow in scope, so it may not contain all of the meaning of the original statement.

But sometimes we can’t deconstruct ideas as much as we would like. For example, the principle of Aiki is an umbrella concept which contains multiple ideas. On the physical side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance by using the opponent’s momentum against him. On the interpersonal side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance in social relationships as well. There are also ethical aspects to Aiki(e.g. if the goal is to neutralize a hostile opponent, then one should not attack if the opponent is already neutralized. Furthermore, if you do attack, the opponent may use the very same tactics to neutralize you). While we can look at each of these aspects separately, it’s clear that Aiki links these ideas together at a fundamental level. That provides an obstacle to those of us who would try to deconstruct it.

Aiki is problematic because it contains several linked concepts. When concepts are linked together, they are difficult to compare to other martial arts which have similar ideas that are not linked. This is a problem that translators encounter every day. In language, we encounter linked concepts frequently. In English, the word “house” has different connotations than the word “home,” because “home” is linked to ideas such as comfort, safety, love, and so on. If we were translating the word “house,” it would probably be easy in most languages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to translate “home” if the target language did not have a word with those same connotations. This is why many words do not have direct translations in other languages. Likewise, many martial arts concepts do not have direct translations in other martial arts. This is because when concepts are linked together, those concepts acquire certain connotations.

It’s not always a problem when concepts are linked. But when we’re comparing ideas across two different martial arts, it’s a problem when that linkage is asymmetrical. For example, martial art A believes that every stance is associated with a certain state of mind, so it links its concept of proper stance with its ideas about attitude. On the other hand, martial art B looks at stances independently, preferring to think of attitude as an unrelated concept. When comparing the stances of martial arts A and B, or when applying the stances of one martial art to another, these linked concepts will be an obstacle to the translation.


A former girlfriend of mine once laughed when I used the word “martial artist.” She had never heard it before, and I suppose she thought it was a bit pretentious. I was surprised that she had never encountered it, especially considering that she was practicing a martial art at the time. I explained it to her grammatically: If there is such a thing as a martial art, then the one who practices it must be called a martial artist. This seemed like a sufficient answer at the time, and she laughed it off. But I wondered whether the phrase “martial art” is commonly understood.

Most martial artists will take it for granted that martial arts are forms of art. But to the non-practitioner, this is neither obvious nor uncontestable. If you can’t explain to a non-practitioner why a martial art deserves to be an art, then it is your unclear ideas that are to blame. The nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford once said “an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.” We tend to complicate our ideas when we talk about them with other “experts,” which is perhaps one reason why the role of art in martial arts is unclear. But clarity is paramount. If you would like to deceive yourself or anyone else, the first step is to obfuscate and confuse. Use vague language, speak in aphorisms, commit logical fallacies, appeal to emotion instead of reason, falsely equate one term with another, and you will not only ruin your sense of clarity, but you may also earn yourself a career in politics. I subscribe to the idea that the goal of a philosopher is not to ask deep and meaningful questions about existence, but rather to think clearly about whatever it is he chooses to think about. And so I choose to think clearly about the following question: What is artistic about martial arts?

The least definable word in English

Our first order of business will be to decompress this vague word, “art.” Nowhere in English does there exist a word which defies definition so stubbornly as this one. Art has no single definition because it is not a single idea. It tries to be too many things to too many people, a conceptual snowball which collects new ideas without shedding the old ones. Rather than wasting our time by defining art as a whole, let’s break it into manageable pieces.


Sometimes, when we say art, we mean skill. Art once referred to artisanship, the craft of a skilled tradesman like a carpenter or potter. By this definition, a martial art is unarguably an art, for the simple reason that fighting demands a high level of skill. For example, a great swordsman can refine his skill to the point where we can say that he is an artist. This is the least controversial sense in which martial arts are artistic, and it is the conception of art most commonly applied to martial arts. In this sense, “martial arts” roughly means “the refined skill of fighting,” plus all its associated practices.


Art used to be associated with manufacturing, back in the days when manufacturing was done by hand. For this reason, older conceptions of art tend to focus on the creation of a tangible work. Thus arts were creative in the simple sense that they were skills for the purpose of creating things. Martial arts do not create anything tangible, although I would argue that they can engage in a more abstract kind of creation. But if that were our reason for denying the artistic status of martial arts, then we would have to deny it to performance arts such as dancing and acting as well.


Sometimes when we say art, we mean a form of expression. According to this idea, art is important because the act of expression is valuable in itself. Expression is the process of turning an idea into reality, taking a mental impulse and exporting it to the outside world. Just like a dancer, a martial artist can express himself through his choice of physical motions. He can express his emotions, his character values, his tactical priorities, and so on. For example, a martial artist who studied Bagua and Hapkido could express his individuality by displaying a form of fighting which is neither Bagua nor Hapkido, but a unique combination of the two.

Yet fighting presents a problem for expression, because expression requires intent. Expression begins with a mental impulse, and what is that mental impulse if not intent? Without intent, then there is no mental impulse to be expressed, and nothing to be exported to the outside world. However, a martial artist does not typically reserve part of his mind for expression during a fight. While training, he can express whatever he likes, but during a real fight for survival, a martial artist can’t afford to be concerned with expression. At a glance, it seems like there is no room for expression in a fight. However, I can see two exceptions: First, while expression must be intentional, it need not be consciously intentional. In other words, a martial artist could subconsciously express himself during a fight. Second, it is possible, though unlikely, that a martial artist could be so much more skilled than his opponent that he has the presence of mind to express himself while fighting. Imagine a master who has been attacked by an artless thug: If the master proceeds to intentionally embarrass the thug, isn’t that a kind of expression? Therefore it is possible, though unlikely, to express yourself in life or death situations.


If an artist comes up with an idea and intentionally communicates it, we call that expression. However, not everyone believes that art has to be intentional. Sometimes “art” refers to a work which is supposed to elicit ideas in the mind of an observer. According to this view, the artist’s intent is not as important as the effect of the art in another person’s mind. This is very similar to expression, with one critical difference: The idea need not originate in the artist’s mind. Therefore a work of art could be accidental; it makes no difference. A child dancing freely, unaware of any spectators, might elicit ideas in an observer just as well as a professional dancer could. It’s not hard to imagine how this can apply to martial arts. Almost anything that can be expressed through martial arts can also be elicited from an observer in much the same way. But elicitation also adds new possibilities: Two martial artists could collaborate in eliciting ideas from an observer while fighting one another. A fight proceeds like a debate, with an attack presented as a thesis and a counterattack presented as an antithesis. In effect, the fight is an argument about what fighting methods are most effective. The observer, seeing this in progress, can merge the two opposing viewpoints into a synthesis of ideas, learning something expressed by neither fighter individually but rather by the two in conflict. This is the sort of creativity which is only possible through elicitation.


For some people, art is not so much about the work of art as it is about the internal processes within the artist. According to this idea, a work of art is painted upon the canvas of the artist’s mind, which grows and transforms as it is inspired by new ideas. This process is both physical and mental in the case of martial artists. A martial artist must cultivate his mind and body into the tools of his trade. He must acquire a work ethic, condition himself physically, and develop the proper mental state to make split-second tactical decisions mid-fight. He has to manage his own fear while contending with an adversary who is doing everything he can to interfere. The ideal martial artist sculpts himself like clay, from his primitive state into a physically conditioned, mentally controlled, precise, agile instrument of combat, able to choose and execute the proper response to a threat, guided by values which lend themselves to effective training and fighting. For some people, the process of cultivating these qualities is more important for art than self-expression. Those people will find no end to the art within martial artists.

Transcendence: The refrigerator test

This all seems simple enough. Each of the above is a facet of the word “art.” If martial arts meet the criteria for each facet of art, then they must be artistic, right? As usual, it’s not that simple. Let’s take expression as an example: Not all expression is artistic. Communication is a form of expression, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that all communication is a work of art. Now we have a new and stickier problem. There must be some rare and elusive quality which distinguishes artistic expression from ordinary expression. The same can be said for the other facets of art: Skill, creation, expression, elicitation, and transformation all require a minimum quality to be artistic. Essentially, they only become artistic once they are “good enough,” once they have achieved a certain level of meaningfulness. I can’t tell you where this threshold is; it’s inherently subjective.

Purpose and the double standard

Yet this idea of thresholds exposes a double standard in art. For some activities, “artist” is a term we reserve for the best of us. For others, an artist is anyone who participates. A crayon drawing pinned to a refrigerator is a work of art, and its creator is an artist. Drawing is art, end of story. By contrast, take a skill like penmanship: Ordinary penmanship isn’t art, yet develop your skill enough and it becomes the art of calligraphy. Somewhere between good penmanship and calligraphy is an invisible threshold, a level of quality at which the skill exhibits new meaning. At that level, skill transcends its original purpose and strays into the realm of art. Purpose is the key distinction here. Penmanship differs from drawing in that penmanship is not primarily intended to produce works of art. The purpose of drawing, on the other hand, is to produce art in the first place. It’s difficult to generalize about the purpose of all martial arts, but at the center of every martial art is a fighting method(to paraphrase Karl Friday, martial arts may be more than just fighting methods, but they are never less). The purpose of every fighting method is control, not aesthetics, and a fighter in a life-or-death situation cannot afford to worry about art. This is why martial arts are less like drawing and more like penmanship, only becoming artistic at a certain threshold of quality. A martial artist may develop skill, express himself, elicit ideas in others or undergo an internal transformation, yet none of these actions become art unless they are performed well enough. As an added layer of meaning, in transcending the martial art’s purpose, the practitioner shows that works of art and fighting methods can coexist in a single action. In the process the practitioner becomes an artist, earning his rightful place on the refrigerator.

Rescuing the martial “artist”

My girlfriend may have been right to scoff. Maybe she assigned more weight to the term “artist” than I did. While grammatically convenient, it implies a minimum level of quality in our actions. I have always been hesitant to refer to myself in this way; it seems somewhat pompous and self-congratulatory. I once heard a man bemoan the label “writer” for the same reason. He liked to write but had not found any success in writing as a trade, and so he resisted the title. He continued this way until he realized that there are countless people who play instruments infrequently and recreationally, yet still have every right to call themselves musicians. He and they were practitioners of their crafts; the titles of writer, musician, or martial artist require nothing more. It may be possible for a martial artist to create, express, or elicit something artistic. He might even create art by transforming himself into something new. But even if none of this is possible, there is still one facet of art which undeniably applies to martial arts. Martial arts are refined skills, and this is the main reason why we call ourselves artists. A practitioner of martial arts needs neither to achieve nor pursue artistic transcendence to be called a martial artist. And just as a crayon-wielding child has claim to call himself an artist, so too do our scribblings earn us the same title.

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.

The duel is an idealized fight. It’s one-on-one, on even ground, with weapons agreed upon in advance. Neither party is ambushed or denied a chance to prepare. Other rules may apply in accordance with local standards of honor and gentlemanliness. Based on those standards, a duel should ensure that the best man wins. However, the rules of dueling are necessarily artificial.

A plate from Ridolfo Capoferro's 1610 rapier treatise. Capoferro's system is sometimes criticized for being too duel-oriented.

There is no single set of rules for the duel, because dueling conventions changed over time and by region. We like to think that martial arts will work independently of time and place, given that the principles of physics and biomechanics apply equally to all humans throughout history. However, dueling restrictions are not so universal. When you prepare for a duel, you must prepare for a specific, localized type of duel.

Among the European sword arts, some appear to be optimized for just such an idealized or localized duel. These arts are dependent on the idea that there is only a single opponent, that the opponent has roughly the same weapon, and so on. Any system which is optimized for artificial restrictions will be less realistic as a result. If a martial art only works in idealized or localized conditions, isn’t that an undeniably bad thing? Isn’t a dueling system less useful than other forms of swordsmanship?

Ordinarily, I would agree. But a thought has plagued me recently.

Swordsmanship is not practical. In the 21st century, we can hypothesize a sword fight, but it’s not a reality that we actually prepare for. It’s critical that the system can work, but it’s not important that the system does work. That is to say, it’s important that a system of swordsmanship works hypothetically.

Immanuel Kant would put it this way: If we know that swordsmanship is impractical but practice it anyway, then we don’t care whether a 21st century sword fight is actual, we only care whether it’s possible. When a sword fight actually happens in the 21st century, then it becomes both possible and actual.

We can agree that a sword fight is possible. But it’s also possible to have a totally fair, idealized sword fight. And if we can posit the existence of a non-actual sword fight, isn’t it equally fair to posit the existence of a non-actual idealized sword fight? What difference does it make if we add in one more set of conditions?

How can a dueling system be less practical than a system that’s unpractical to begin with? Is it just that the dueling system is marginally less practical? Is there no way to distinguish between dueling systems and other systems of swordsmanship in terms of practicality?

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.