Martial Academia

Ancient depiction of fighting monks practicing...

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“Learn from the experienced, not from the learned” – Anonymous

Since the nineteenth century, streets have been patrolled by organised police forces employed to uphold the laws of the land designed to protect the innocent. Yet the civilised human being is still drawn to combat whether it is as a system of self-protection, a form of stress relief or a method to keep healthy. There is something appealing about the visceral look and feel of ordered violence. Such a feeling can be seen in our gestures from a celebratory punch in the air to a playful wrestle with a close friend. Even pacifists find escapism in the fantasy battle world of Tolkien or the martial arts infused science fiction film, “The Matrix.”

Most people will tell you that what they want out of martial arts is self- defence. In reality, the majority of them want an exciting social activity that will keep them fit and make them feel good. Self-defence is a very straightforward, unsophisticated system that has more to do with self-awareness, common sense and adrenaline control learned through experience than just physical applications. The physical side to it is a short series of crude basic techniques that would make for a very dull, short pre-arranged form, kata, pattern, hyung or poomse. This is what made up all of the military martial arts in their early days. The systems had to be basic and straightforward in order to train a large amount of people to be combat-ready in a short space of time.

Those who enjoyed learning combat wished to expand on their training and the luxury of not having to fight for your life day in and day out helped the martial artist achieve their goal. This was a natural progression for anyone who had an artistic mind. Shakespeare originally wrote his plays to earn a living, but as he became more successful he was able to indulge himself and write from a more intellectual point of view. Likewise, the successful martial artist grew bored with practicing the same simple drill year after year – a drill designed with only the lowest intellect’s ability to master it in mind.

Therefore, we can see that martial arts the world over took two paths in the quest for expansion. One path was embraced by the sportsman. In this case, arts weren’t tested on the battlefield or in response to an ambush, but in an arena where two consenting athletes fought one another. We’ve read about such practices being adopted by nearly every culture going back as far as the earliest days of civilisation. They harden people, build a competitive spirit, and have some benefits in teaching a person about controlling stress. They are not, however, a form of self-defence.

Combat sports make several changes to the art from which they are derived. The most obvious change is the introduction of rules (although it should be pointed out that not all combat sports have or have had rules). Unlike a real-life scenario, the sportsman has fair warning that he is entering into a fight against another person – a fight that will begin on a referee’s word and stop on that same authority. This is very different to a fight in a bar or an ambush attack where the defending protagonist has not consented to the fight. Soldiers know they are to fight one another, but they face a far more unpredictable scenario on the battlefield than they ever would in an organised one-on-one confrontation.

Perhaps the greatest impact sport has on the development of a martial art is the tactics developed for the purposes of competition. Individuality notwithstanding, the combat sportsman develops methods to fight other sportsmen within the confines of their sport. Even the world of Mixed Martial Arts has become a style unto itself. In the nineteenth century, Western Boxing lost its grappling applications, which included throws and locks, and began developing its punching (particularly when gloves were introduced). Judo lost its small-joint locks, most of its strikes, and many of its other techniques, but over the twentieth century refined its holistic, gross motor-skills wrestling. The examples are everywhere including Escrima, which replaced its blade work with rattan canes to make it safer and then developed techniques particular to rattan canes and fighting other cane fighters, and Capoiera, which hid its techniques in dance and games only to later develop more audience appealing techniques to the point that many practitioners don’t know when the dance ends and the fighting begins.

This refinement of techniques within an art’s parameters also forms the basis of another route – one followed by the academics. When it comes to discussing “martial academia”, the arts that often come to mind are the Japanese “do” arts. These were supposed to be the philosophical arts that replaced the warlike “jutsu” systems. The Japanese explained that such martial arts were practiced to improve a person’s character rather than to equip him for battle. Such an attitude is not unique to Japan, though they are the only country to make an official distinction (most notably when Japan opened its enterprise to the western world in 1800′s and after the country’s defeat in World War II). Many scholars argued that this was merely an attitude and that the arts of Karate-Jutsu and Karate-do have few physical differences. This is quite true. During the transitional period very little was done to actually change techniques, just the philosophy behind them. However, in the long run this attitude has influenced the further development of martial arts and how they are taught in peacetime.

Aikido is often unjustly thought of as an ineffective abstract system of martial arts embraced by a Bohemian society of poets, hippies, and scholars. Techniques are mostly based around responses to wrist grabs, which are an unlikely method of attack in modern civilian society, and a dubious-sounding method to the layman of harmonizing with your opponent. All this seems a little surreal to the cynical twenty-first century western observer considering students are also expected to cultivate a mysterious invisible energy in them called “Ki.” In the Chinese martial arts this is known as “Qi” or “Chi” and its development is promoted in another art that also gets a hippy stereotype: “Tai Chi Chuan.”

Put aside the invisible energy argument for now and return to the basic tangible points of these arts. Aikido’s founder, Morhei Ueshiba, had a reputation for being a harsh instructor. He grew up on a farm and served in the military. We can make an educated guess that his early passion for martial arts did not come from a need to expand his spiritual horizons. Aikido was derived from Daito ryu Jujutsu, a system taken straight from the Samurai’s final days. In his own writing Ueshiba explained that Aikido, considered a grappling art, was mostly about pragmatic striking. According to Robert Twigger’s “Angry White Pjamas”, Ueshiba’s school became notorious for the injuries he inflicted on his students and many have argued that it was this brutal method of training that ironically helped make the art more flowing in application. Students became so fearful of their teacher that they made sure they went with the technique he was applying.

If this is not proof of the systems’ early severity then we have the reputation of the Yoshikan school of Aikido founded, on Ueshiba’s blessing, by one of his top students, Gozo Shioda. This character would often prowl the streets looking for fights to hone his skills. To this day, his school has an intense year-long training programme undertaken by the Japanese riot Police. So, what gave Aikido its undeserved reputation for being a fanciful ritualistic series of two-man exercises for the wishful thinking?

The answer is that modern Aikido is a classic example of martial academia. Just as the legendary and amoral Samurai, Myamoto Musashi, laid down his swords to embrace calligraphy, art, craft, philosophy, and his own spirituality, so Ueshiba grew weary with breaking bones. He further explored and experimented with his Aikido techniques and looked into other methods to improve them. However, what he did within the confines of the dojo institution he had built up around him became further and further removed from martial technique. We can imagine long-suffering students, sick of being injured, only too happy to go along with the more passive direction the teacher took as he aged. Perhaps the largest impact on Ueshiba’s Aikido was his spiritual revelation that led him to become a member of an obscure cult during his final years. The art probably little-resembled the simple combat system it had once been.

It would be wrong to blame Aikido’s departure from combat effectiveness on its founder alone. Even Shioda’s militaristic and disciplined system became academic. As the years passed, techniques were explored and refined and like Ueshiba’s school, the Yoshikan Dojo became an institution. The hard training ethic remains to this day, but the classes are not really designed to teach people self-protection. They are more about building character.

The natural variety of Chinese martial arts is not surprising when one considers the size of their native country. Being invaded from all sides, only the most gullible of martial arts historians believe that the many combat systems invented came after the formation of the Shaolin temple. The Chinese had their own militaries and have a history of fighting invaders from the surrounding countries. The war-like Mongolians occupied much of China at one stage and their descendents are said to be the main ancestors of the modern Chinese. In fact, the philosophy of Buddhism might be partly responsible for one of martial academia’s most unrealistic attitudes towards self-defence – the notion that you wait until you are attacked before you counter.

Most, if not all, Shaolin systems start every separate series of movement with a block. The principle behind this is that fighting is a last resort and the Buddhist shows a passive response to an attack before he counters. I’ve seen this principle to be intrinsic in most systems across the board from the one-step sparring of Taekwondo to the two-man kata of Jujutsu. In reality, a pre-emptive strike is always the preferred action. A student should be taught how to read a situation and to react efficiently to an opponent’s initial aggressive movement whether it is to step into the student’s safety zone or the slight muscular twitch that indicates the aggressor is about to attack. In short, he who starts first normally wins.

However, I shouldn’t be too harsh on blocking. It is an essential part of training along with evading. It is important to note that a block can mean more than a passive way to re-direct a technique or shield you from a strike. Blocks can also be applied as effective “hidden” strikes directed at the limbs of your attacker or even misinterpreted strikes to other parts of the body.

Chinese systems were often taught in a family environment and their secrets closely guarded from rival families or oppressive governments and occupying foreigners. Even as late as the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the nineteenth century martial arts systems such as Choy Lay Fut were being created and then shrouded by dance movements and shortened techniques. Chinese systems, like most that are put under the traditional banner, often suffered from bad interpretation and application.

Chinese martial arts were not as fast to pick up the ranking structure taken by most Japanese and Korean disciplines. Chinese arts demonstrated a more liberated, but less organised, approach than their most obvious business rivals when they were imported to the rest of the world. Therefore, there may have been less emphasis on teachers pondering and exploring techniques as there was always another form to learn or weapon to master. However, rather than warping the art through trying to expand on it, a type of under-development took place. Couple this with commercial opportunities created by the easy-looking slow movements of Tai Chi Chuan and the entertainment value of Ditan, and it would appear that money was a fine motivator for some Chinese stylists to forget about martial applications altogether.

On the other side of the cash register, the superstition once used to convince the Chinese warriors of the Boxer Rebellion that they could deflect bullets with their powers, found sympathetic modern-day listeners. New-age ideas about spiritual powers first became popular in the west during the nineteenth century in the wake of Gothic fiction and the work of Madame Blavatsky. Spiritual societies opened up in Britain, Europe, and America and were patronised by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By the 1960s, social rebellion was at its height and these exotic ideas grew popular again – this time amongst youth. This interest coincided with Bruce Lee’s growing fame. Sadly, as Kung Fu became fashionable so did the superstition attached to it. This was in spite of the pragmatic attitude of Bruce Lee and other martial arts luminaries of the time. Many instructors affected an attitude more suited to the times of the Opium Wars than the twentieth century. They taught people in a manner similar to fanatical religious cult leaders and became charlatans who ended up believing in their own mystical hype.

The Chinese art of Wing Chun suffered the least in both these respects. The system was kept simple and this principle made it famous. It only has three forms and teaches just two weapons. From what we’ve seen with the Japanese arts, however, these limitations make this art vulnerable to martial academia. Despite Wing Chun being a highly efficient system of combat, many schools get into the habit of learning only how to counter techniques from their own style.

The evolution of a style within a closed-door environment leads to the development of the flaws of martial academia. It is the key point that divided martial arts from real self-defence. It wasn’t long before martial artists simply learned how to fight their own art, and often their own specific brand or style of that art. In contrast, Iaido (the sword-drawing art of Japan), has lost its combat side by doing the opposite. Iaijutsu, Iaido’s forerunner, was a combat system developed by the Samurai to fight other Samurai, but since the suppression of these warriors it has become a ritualistic art mainly practiced alone.

Civilisation gives people the privilege to discuss, analyse, and hypothesise about many things – things that never come under such close scrutiny when the comforts of organised society are removed. There are educated individuals in such a society who enjoy playing devil’s advocate so much that they end up believing in their false argument. Others, the more mathematically minded, will come up with incredible equations that are very possible within the realms of logical theory, but appear very far-fetched when screened by contemporary common sense. Bert Lance’s old cliché, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” are words of wisdom when we consider such a situation. However, it is worth noting that this goes against human nature. It is like trying to tell an artist to stop painting after his first masterpiece. The martial artist is poor in this respect since he only has one canvas.

Martial academia does not always unconsciously detract its art from its original purpose. In fact, many martial academics and martial sportsmen enjoy the civilised privilege of arguing whether one art could beat another. They look at statistics and they try to treat the whole occasion as if it were a mathematical problem, leading them to think in terms of styles rather than people. Life isn’t like that. All martial arts have their deficiencies, yet all can be, or have been at some period, comprehensive fighting systems that can give you the entire physical arsenal you will need in hand-to-hand combat.

Despite every scenario being as different as the individuals involved, you won’t need many techniques. Most street fighters rely on a very limited number of techniques. I know one who relies on a knock-out jab, a shoulder barge, or picking up a weapon. Another fellow grabs with his left and hooks with his right, and occasionally headlocks then uses a knee strike. Both of these men employ a series of undisciplined, scruffy moves – nevertheless, their unique methods have gained them victory in countless street confrontations. However, I’d never profess to their abilities being much to speak of if they were examined in a training hall or used in any form of competition.

Techniques are just the surface of fighting outside of the school or arena. What makes them work is the will of the protagonist who can use his adrenaline as a chemical turbo-charge, the way it was prehistorically intended. Looking at the broader picture, we find even this is still only part of what is required to be a capable fighter in a real-life situation. Before the actual fight, a student will need to be alert, aware and able to read situations in order to make correct clear-headed decisions in just a matter of seconds. This approach is taught in few schools and can’t be replicated in competition. Compared to the physicality of martial arts it is a very inactive part of a person’s training and is very general. Like the basic effective techniques that comprised the original arts and are at their core, this side of training is very limited and must be kept that way. The human mind naturally wants to progress, explore and experiment with its physical tools. Sadly often when this happens, the system begins its journey away from the martial and more towards the art thus the whole process becomes academic.

Some systems get more of a reputation than others for being abstract and distanced from combat efficiency. However, there isn’t a popular martial art that hasn’t transitioned like this in some way. Even the feared and revered no-nonsense tough schools of Muay Thai, Kyokoshinkai Karate, Krav Magra, Wing Chun and Brazilian Jujutsu spend most of their time dealing with the physical side to fighting; refining and developing their techniques for purposes quite different to the reality of being mugged or assaulted. This is not a bad thing. Martial arts aren’t all about self-defence and can provide us with so much more than this. They can be a source of sport, exercise and artistic development. All are natural, healthy desires of the human mind.

However, I would encourage the more serious student to never neglect the true root of their system and be aware of its original purpose. I’d also urge students to look outside their art from time to time in order to gain more perspective. There are more similarities between the various martial arts than differences. This is dictated by the way they have influenced one another at different times and the simple fact that you can only fight in a limited number of ways. For example: First, look at the knife work in the Filipino systems and compare it to the elbow techniques of other South East Asian countries – then compare those to the techniques of Wing Chun.

When a person loves something, they become immersed in it. There is nothing wrong with this, but we must always keep in touch with our common sense. I believe this to be the best way to honour the founders of the arts we practice. We must appreciate and understand the differences between the practical and the academic.