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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Defining Tradition

Re-reading Forrest Morgan’s Living the Martial Way got me thinking about some things, especially in conjunction with some other things I've read lately. In particular, it got me thinking about the way many martial artists use the term “tradition”. I've had issues with that term for years, but sometime more recently, I realized part of what bugs me about it so much.

When many martial artists use the term tradition, or traditional, they are basing their view on what is essentially an ethnocentric point of view. In other words, they look at their training in a Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan, or Korean (the dominant forms of Asiatic martial arts found in the U.S.), take that to be "traditional", and then assume that anything that does not conform to that teaching model must be non-traditional.

There are two problems with this viewpoint.

1. What many people think of as "traditional" isn't.

Tae Kwon Do? Created in the 1950's. Shotokan (often held up as a model of "traditional Japanese karate") didn't exist until the 1920's. For the record, prior to that, karate was a strictly Okinawan system. The Japanese had other stuff. Judo and Aikido, by the way, were created in the late 1880's and the 1920's, respectively.

Are there some very old martial traditions out there? Of course there are. The Japanese Koryu can, in some cases, trace their history back for hundreds of years. They are also vanishingly rare in the United States, and finding an authentic teacher of one is a rather difficult process. There are documents recording Chinese martial practices that are quite old, though they may not describe any style preserved in the modern day.

My point is less the question of whether ancient martial arts have been preserved, and more that strutting around with your nose up in the air about your "ancient martial traditions" is a little silly when you're doing something that was invented after the end of the First World War.

2. Other countries have other traditions that are equally valid.

The major focus of my training for the past ten years has been on the art of Muay Thai. Muay Thai, if you ask most "traditional" martial artists, isn't traditional. This is presumably because Nak Muay wear shorts, and openly beat each other up for money.

Muay Thai, however, has a history as long and as proud as that of many "traditional" systems; the legendary boxer Nai Khanomtomi defeated ten Burmese boxers in a single day in 1774. His victory is a national holiday in Thailand, and annual fights between Muay Thai and Burmese Lethwei fighters are still held in his honor. Boxing gloves and rings were added to Muay Thai in the 1920's, making it an art contemporary with many of the arts I mentioned earlier.

Likewise, western boxing and wrestling have histories that extend back for centuries. The Marquess of Queensberry rules were introduced in 1867, but the sport existed in other forms for centuries before that. Greco-Roman wrestling was created in a similar time frame.

All of that doesn't even include the various European martial traditions that existed in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, which Sydney Anglo covers brilliantly in his book. Granted, those traditions have not been as well preserved as some Asian traditions, but they did exist. Some people are working diligently to revive them, a process I think is extremely fascinating and currently have no time to be involved in whatsoever.

In any case...

If you study a martial art, there is nothing wrong with being proud of the traditions of your art, or of the culture which produced it. If you believe that those cultures produced an art which best meets your needs, even better. Enjoy them. Be proud of them. Spread them all you like.

But please, stay off your high horse about how anyone who doesn't do what you are doing isn't "traditional". Because that's garbage. Elitist, frequently ethnocentric garbage to boot. Knock it off.

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