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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Role of Context in the Development of Martial Arts

Acknowledgments: The ideas, thoughts, and concepts in this article owe a lot to conversations and training I have had with a number of people, most notably Tony Blauer, Wes Tasker, Jigme Daniels, and Jessica Hedgepeth. Without them, these ideas would not have crystallized in any fashion.

Second to actually training, one of the most popular pastimes for many martial artists is spend time comparing your art to another training system. These comparisons are sometimes respectful (“why do you punch this way, and not that way?”), and sometimes not (“what kind of an idiot would punch like that?”). Depending on how the question is phrased, these discussions can be either terribly enlightening, or terribly frustrating.

One thing I have observed is often absent from these discussions, however, is any kind of discussion or understanding of the role that social, cultural, and historical contexts play in the development of any martial training system. Which is unfortunate, because understanding the context in which a martial art was created can illuminate a great deal about the whys and wherefores of a particular system.

By way of illustration, let us take a look at the Japanese Koryu; these are Japanese martial arts systems that first appeared some time between the 14th and 16th centuries, during the height of Japan’s feudal period. Those that still survive today are reasonably well-preserved (I have no doubt that there are extensive arguments as to HOW well, but let’s not get into that) specimens of a training method that is absolutely rooted in social, cultural, and historical contexts.

If you look at the technical body of the Koryu, you’ll notice a couple of things right away. One is that there’s a lot of time spent on weapons practice; swords, knifes, polearms, staves, and other medieval implements of death and destruction. Many the “unarmed” techniques include the draw of a small weapon at some point in their execution. The modern observer (particularly the modern observer interested in modern day self-defense) might see all of this as either overkill, or just pure anachronism. After all, goes the observation, how many of us walk down the street with a small arsenal on our belts?

Which is a fair question (and again, I don’t want to get into the relevancy or otherwise of any particular art…I’ll save those sorts of considerations for another time), but it ignores the context in which these arts were developed. Because for a medieval samurai, the answer to the question “who goes around with multiple blades on him at all times?” is “me.” The Samurai were members of a warrior caste, in a culture where dueling was acceptable and assassination was not uncommon. Samurai weren’t just allowed to carry weapons, they were EXPECTED to (in most circumstances).

Another common observation about Koryu (and some of their descendents) is that the unarmed curriculum often contains an extensive series of techniques fro dealing with wrist grabs. People grabbing your wrist with one hand, or with two hands, cross-side grips, same side grips, and on and on…it can start to seem a little silly.

Except, again, if you’re talking about a group of people who were walking around with several weapons on their belt most of the time. Because if someone (or more likely, a group of someones, because most people aren’t crazy enough to jump a well-armed, well-trained man by themselves) is trying to take you out, the first thing they are going to want to do is restrict your access to your weapons; and the most sensible way to do that is to immobilize the weapon bearing limb…which often means grabbing the wrist.

I happen to focusing on the Koryu because I think they are a great example of this, but you can see the influences of cultural and historical contexts in all martial arts. Like the Filipino martial arts, which put a huge premium on bladed combat, because, again, it’s a culture where every able-bodied male carries a blade. In Filipino culture, the blade isn’t just a weapon, it’s a tool…the sort of thing that everyone carries, the way a modern day American might carry an ATM card or a cell phone.

Where things get really interesting, of course, is if you start examining the differences between two seemingly similar arts, and picking out where the culture is creating differences. Both the Filipino and Koryu arts emphasize the use of weapons, but they assume very different environments and contexts. In a particularly illuminating moment, I remember Jigme demonstrating a knife disarm from a Koryu, where the defender used his forearm as a brace to pry the knife out of the attacker’s hand. It didn’t make much sense to me, until Jigme pointed out that the disarm was meant to be done in armor, which would have protected the forearm from being slashed at the ranges in question. You will rarely see those kinds of disarms in a Filipino system, because, well, wearing armor in the hot jungles of the Philippines is not traditionally considered a great idea. So other techniques develop instead.

Clearly, I could go on about this for a while, but I think (hope) my point is clear. Martial arts don’t develop in a vacuum, nor do they appear, fully formed, in the minds of their practitioners. They are constantly influenced and changed by the culture and times that they exist in. And that’s something very worth considering.

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