Thoughts on the Natural History of Martial Arts

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the midst of a “baby haitus” where I’m home more than practicing. But I’m trying not to let the time be wasted. I’m beginning a series of thoughts on the martial arts. This is the first in this series.

What is a martial art? For a seemingly simple question, the answer is elusive. Peter Lorge, a professor at Vanderbilt University and who wrote an excellent history of the Chinese martial arts, wrote in that book that the definition he used for that book was “…the various skills or practices that originated as methods of combat.” I’m not using page numbers here since I read the eBook version of the book and pagination is an issue. Regardless, this definition and his subsequent explanation of the definition are in his Introduction under the subheading of “Defining Martial Arts.” I strongly recommend this book. It is a splash of cold water in your face if you’re thinking about the martial arts. I like his definition, and there are other qualifications that I would like to draw out of it, namely that such a system must have be teachable (repeatable)—and something that maybe I’m adding—must survive an incubation period. Professor Lorge rightly points out that a martial art must be teachable, otherwise it is an idiosyncratic style. The incubation period is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and what I would like to discuss here.

For a martial art to be teachable means that it will survive its founder, say O-Sensei for aikido and Yang Lu-chan for Yang taijiquan. The incubation period is the time it takes for the martial art itself to shake out the method by which it will a) succeed in combat in someone other than the founder’s hands and b) successfully generate new generations of users. In other words, the time it takes to finalize a basic curriculum. Depending on how much actual combat the system and its early users see, can affect the length of time it takes to develop the training protocol. Too much combat and you’re rushing people into the field and too little and your moving away from the reality of combat. The thought that I’ve been tinkering with is that it takes about three generations of users. This may mean actual generations, but it can also mean training generations. This is only a thought and the actual incubation period could be different. The next question is: what does this mean to the “original” art or can we say that what comes out on the other side is the founder’s art?

This is a harder question to answer, but I would say that in general the answer would be yes. Others would disagree, of course. Some might say that there isn’t an incubation period. There are things in life that we would like to be fully formed from the start, emerging like Athena from the head of Zeus, whether it’s a religion or martial art or whatever. In many cases, we see the founder and the martial art as one rather than founder being a parent bringing the art into the world. Children are in many ways our reflection, but they are also their own selves. No matter how they change, they are our children and nothing changes that. Maya and Sam will always be my daughter and son, winners or losers, for good or for bad. I can’t control or predict who or what my children or potential grandchildren might become, but they are a part of me. A martial art is the same way. It will grow and expand or whither and pass away depending upon the circumstances of the times and the group think of its practitioners. Founders of martial arts do the heaviest work by birthing and initially nourishing the art.

Is aikido the creation of O-Sensei or of son, or his students? Aikido is a creation of O-Sensei. Do we practice in exactly the same way as it was in 1942? No. But we often forget that creation takes time, that building something that will last requires testing and revision. A concept that seemed very important at one stage may naturally fall out completely in a later stage. For better or for worse, that’s what happens. Judo, in many ways, is very different from what Kano Jigoro-sensei created in the 1880’s. Over a 130 years later, many elements have changed, but it is still judo. Aikido today is still aikido, even if we don’t quite do it the same way as in the 40’s or 50’s. This, however, shouldn’t be seen as an apology for dojo that teach poor fundamentals or erroneous techniques (I have a friend who once visited a dojo that had the names of the attacks completely mixed up). But amongst dojo that have a basic threshold of ability (and what that threshold is is a debate for another time), there will be staggering variation. This is true of other martial arts too, as anyone knowing a few taijiquan jokes will tell you.

And speaking of taijiquan, sometimes where an art wants to go is somewhere no one would have ever expected. Yang taijiquan began in a time when these family systems protected little towns and villages, caravans of merchants, and wealthy travelers and today is the most practiced form of taijiquan on the planet. I’m sure Yang Luchan never dreamed of creating a martial art that would be studies and poked and prodded for all its potential health benefits, but here we are. By the time Yang Chengfu, from whom most Yang stylists descend (disclosure: I do not), the art was different. Some might say weaker as a martial art, but in truth stronger in that it would survive and thrive. Practiced for any reason (health or fighting), one can point to nearly a billion people practicing taijiquan in one form or another. And this is the reason for the incubation period—survivability. We may be prone to a survivability bias, but an art that dies out in a few generations doesn’t do any of us any good. It’s a name in a book. An extinct fighting art isn’t a fighting art. It’s extinct. When it was extant it was a fighting art.

Survivability means success. The surviving art may not have been the most effective art created in that the period in which it began, but it is the one that lived. It passed the basic threshold of having an effective combat-based curriculum. Others might have been better, but for one reason or another they didn’t survive. Perhaps the curriculum was too complex to be taught correctly; maybe it was too harsh to be learned without permanent damage; or maybe the progenitor and his/her first students were pricks. We forget that not only will a system that is too weak die out, but also one that is too strong or aggressive. Striking the balance of being effective, teachable, and learnable is harder to achieve that it appears. Anyone who has reached a shodan or equivalent knows how hard a martial art is to learn, and anyone trying to teach a martial art knows how difficult it is to effectively instruct these simple-but-complicated mechanics and concepts. The natural history of a martial art requires disciplined fluidity during its early years, much as a child does. And like a child, it will grow up as it wants. The difference for a martial art is that, after leaving the founder’s hands, it will have a group brain that will encompass the desires and aspirations of dozens, hundreds, or millions rather than that of a single individual but still bound the founder’s ideas, aspirations, strategies, and fundamental techniques.

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