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Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Seth is writing about business and soceity, not martial arts, but I think it applies pretty well to martial arts anyway.

I've written before about my dislike of the term "traditional" martial arts. Let me reiterate, in case it's not clear, that it is the TERM I dislike, not the arts themselves. Part of those reasons I outlined in the post I linked to above. Part of the reason is the one Seth touches on in his blog.

See, I've been doing the martial arts, in one form or another, since I was about 15. (12, if you count the obligatory year of Tae Kwon Do that I did before my Bar Mitzvah). Not ages and ages, but long enough to have been around and seen some things, especially since I've had the opportunity to train with a pretty wide variety of teachers in a bunch of different disciplines. SOme of the teachers have been very similar; some have been vastly different, but one thign has been constant.

They all changed.

Some of them changed entire teaching methodologies. Some of them made minor "tweaks" to drills. They added an extra kata, or dropped a kata from their curriculum. I've even known people who completely abandoned a training method in favor of a different one that they felt better met their needs.

In the face of that, I have a very hard time believing in the long, unbroken, unchanged teachings from before time that a lot of "traditional" martial arts claim to have. I realize that there are some rare cases where we have actual documentary evidence that things have been preserved (at least to a certain degree), but when all we have to work on is some oral history and assurances that no, really, it's been done this way for thousands of years, unchanging...I just don't buy it.

Why I Think This Matters

Every now and then, when I get on a rant about something, my wife will look at me and say "yeah, but who cares?". I suspect this could be one of those posts, so let me explain.

The claim that an art has been handed down, perfect and unchanging since the dawn of time, has been used by instructors around the world to the detriment of their students. They use these claims to keep power rather than share it, to restrict growth rather than encourage it. By claiming that the system is perfect and unalterable, they free themselves from having to think or analyze what they are doing, regardless of the cost to their students. And that I find absolutely repulsive.

That's why I think this matters.


Neil Bednar said...

What's even crazier is- what if a few things actually were handed down unchanged despite the odds against it... I suspect the problem then is that in 2012, the instructor has no understanding at all of what the purpose of the particular movement or kata even was or is. Ian Abernethy talks alot about this. He has a great blog, and has done a bunch of interesting research to this effect, even having old manuscripts by karate masters translated by non-martial artists in an attempt to figure out what they meant by some of the movements.

Jake said...

I'm passingly familiar with Abernathy's work, but never looked that deeply at it. I've heard good things, but not being a karate guy, I never felt the need.

But, as you yourself point out, even if a movement gets passed down unchanged, it's frequently not useful anyway. Having the movement by itself without any context to how it relates to the external world turns it from combative activity into weird cultural dance, at that point.

Maija said...

Agree that traditions have been, and should be alive. Of course back in the day, whilst they were actually being USED for what they were intended, then it was easy to see what glitches needed tweaking or changes made to get students to get better. Sport is easier, as it is apparent what works and what does not.
Problem is when, like you say, context is lost, or teachers have no tactical experience to base any decisions on.
Then, you can see why this 'don't touch a thing' mentality came into being. Say it was battlefield sword art for instance. NO-one nowadays has any experience here .... so on some level you are an actor of historical theory as opposed to a practitioner of something 'meaningful'. That's OK, it's interesting, but it leaves a teacher in a tough spot. The art is 'dead' to some extent, so do you keep it exactly as is? Or do you deign to impose your own theories ontop of it ...?
2 things of interest my TMA teacher said, and yes he has changed all kinds of things in the system - You can change what you feel needs changing, but you have be be good enough to know what does. (I think of it as having a meta picture in your mind of what the student will look like when they 'have' the system, and working towards that).
He has said that everything you need to know is already there, so once you realize that, then you can tweak it as you need to.
The other thing he said I thought was fascinating was that he likes to teach what has remained similar through time in our system, and it's related sister systems and divergent branches. He says that is the stuff that was kept because it obviously worked. Stuff that diverged, he feels had problems, so kept getting altered.
I have not reached the level in Bagua or Hsing-Yi to 'see' the total system as being complete, but I do confess to changing some of the training models to try to solve particular glitches I know are problems in students movement and thinking.

Jake said...


True. Honestly, part of me wonders how old this obsession with 'tradition' really is. It seems like something that becomes more prevalent the less you have to actually use a system.

(My limited understanding is that a lot of the Filipino Martial Arts fall into this category, having seen use in real engagements up into the 20th century).

And yeah, sport systems have an advantage in that they have a built in litmus test for their training methods. Self-defense doesn't lend itself as easily to experimentation.

I can understand where the "don't touch a thing" mentality comes from with regard to systems like battlefield sword systems that lack a modern litmus test. I don't even have a problem with the mentality...I just have a hard time believing that it's that perfect. Human beings LIKE to tinker with stuff. Human beings misinterpret stuff. It seems all to easy to me for someone to change a movement unintentionally, never mind doing it on purpose.

I like your teacher's comment about needing to see/understand the whole system before you start tinkering with it. A lot of folks don't seem to have patience for that, but it's accurate, I think.

On the flip side, as a teacher, I think sometimes you have to tinker. If what you're showing your students isn't working, either you try to find a way to fix it, or you end up with very few (and very frustrated) students.

Neil Bednar said...

We may also just be overlooking the fact that it's possible the term "traditional" wasn't even used by martial artists until relatively recently (70's, 80's)when some schools wanted to distinguish themselves as being "old fashioned" perhaps to divorce themselves from what they perceived to be "McDojos". I haven't done the research but I suspect that this plays into the whole topic a good bit.

Jake said...

I suspect you're right, which was part of the motivation behind my "Defining Tradition" post.

I think the term "traditional" is largely useless, at this point, but people keep using it anyway.