Martial Arts Scepticism: Philosophy and Ancient Wisdom

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“Prior to the end of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese martial arts had one goal, pure and simple: winning confrontations through intimidation, the use of weapons, or the use of one’s fists…Chinese martial arts were considered to be a physical skill, a manual skill; they were not linked to any esoteric philosophy, nor were they viewed as a from of character development, religious practice, or spiritual development”.

– “Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey”, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo 

 

Philosophy and martial arts have been associated with each other since… well, not really as long as we would like to think. As much as we want to believe that all the great warriors of old were virtuous and wise sages, it seems highly unlikely. Systems of truly efficient combat are developed by, or derived from, the methods of those who are truly proficient at violence. It is as simple and straightforward as that. The martial artists who have made the biggest tremors in the martial arts community are those who have tested and applied their skills in real life violence or, at least, those who have trained under others who have this level of experience. The true roots of martial arts are found in fighters, be they soldiers, pugilists, street brawlers or people involved in security, who passed their knowledge onto others. The philosophy came later and the esoteric and “character building” stuff came much later.

 

If we look back further than the twentieth century it is difficult to find many texts that see philosophy as an integral part of physical martial arts training. There is nothing, at least on the surface, that proves that famous literature like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings” is about anything else other than efficient combat strategy.

 

Tzu’s work, as the title implies, is a treatise on waging war, perhaps the oldest in existence, where he states his most famous sentence, “All warfare is based on deception.” That early line, which is the eighteenth paragraph of chapter one in most translations, should have been a dead giveaway: this is not a discussion on the virtues of love and peace.

 

Likewise the proof that Musashi was a great philosopher is not found in his most famous text, “The Book of Five Rings”. Like Tzu’s work this treatise deals with combat in an efficient, pragmatic and, arguably, amoral manner. It is a book that describes the best strategies Musashi found worked in the practice of Kenjutsu, Japanese sword-fighting. Musashi apparently was also a keen calligrapher. So what? Hitler liked to paint and it didn’t mean he was a peaceful or “spiritual” person. Musashi, it would appear, was anything but a peaceful person. From an early age he wanted to fight, and throughout his life he would use any means necessary to win, most of which involved outright deception. ome historians have regarded him more as a bully than the archetypical figure of samurai virtue. Before his death Musashi wrote “Dokkodo”, which is perhaps the closest we have to his life philosophy. However, don’t expect to find a text that speaks deeply about loving your fellow human beings or attaining spiritual enlightenment. The 21 precepts for self-discipline contained within the text are more in line with the selfish ideologies of Ayn Rand or Friedrich Nietzsche than an altruistic code of ethics. 

 

It is fair to argue that the principles contained within both “The Art of War” and “The Book of Five Rings” has stood the test of time, but there is always the danger of reading too deep into what has been written or, as is too often the case, twisting the meanings and principles in the text to correspond with one’s own beliefs and ideas. This is avoided when you keep in mind the clear reasons why both texts were written; their historical context and their target readership. In short: why, when and for whom. So, Musashi’s seventeenth century manual on Japanese sword fighting strategies for pupils of his samurai school might share some interesting parallels with the ruthless attitude taken by a  1980s yuppie when he attacked the stock market, but I don’t think it is the best text for advising an early twenty-first century suburbanite how to contribute towards a more caring community.

 

Readership, now that’s another point worth remembering when we consult ancient texts. Widespread literacy is a modern phenomenon and this brings us onto the reason why we have great historical philosophical martial arts writers. Philosophers were learned people. They could write. Therefore it is not surprising that their interpretations of the martial arts are the most numerous. They could leave a legacy where their illiterate contemporaries could not. It has only been since the early 1990s that the “True Crime” subgenre of factual books has spawned dozens of ghost-written autobiographies that detail the “philosophies” of real fighters. Such biographies vary from earlier works where violent men were seemingly repentant about their violent lives to those who see violence as a type of celebratory culture.

 

There are modern exceptions to the rule, perhaps even pioneers, like the realistic martial artist/doorman Geoff Thompson, who is also a legitimate writer and motivational philosopher. Geoff Thompson, in many ways, is a link to all these sides of the martial arts and gives us a glimpse of what the scholarly martial arts pioneers were like and how they developed in their respective journeys. He was a martial artist first who decided to test his skills in a real-life environment. He became a doorman, a person who would face the realities of fighting. The lessons he learnt were brought back to his martial arts classes. However, once the “fight outside of a chip shop” area was covered thoroughly and the physical limitations were established, it was only natural for the great martial artist to pursue other attributes that had been developed as bi-products through his intensive training experiments. These attributes moved further away from the visceral area of last resort civilian self-defence and more into developing character. Although Geoff Thompson has maintained his roots in “hard skills” it also important to remember that he always had a literate soul. He wrote plays at home and he wrote his autobiography “sitting on the toilet” when he worked at a factory. He worked as a nightclub bouncer, but even in those “blood and snot” days, as he gradually went from a martial arts denier to martial arts sceptic, he couldn’t help but notice the poetry in the language of the door and the culture of the door. With this in mind, it is little surprising that as Geoff Thompson changed there were certain principles, deep within him, that were always going to emerge.

 

However, it is with an early twentieth century example of the fighting philosopher that historians like Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo say that “for better or worse” our ideas relating to martial arts religious philosophy have been shaped.

 

Sun Lu Tang was both a highly respected martial arts fighter and an esteemed scholar. He was also a follower of Taoism and was able to synergise his knowledge of the three great schools of internal martial arts training with his religious and philosophical training. Sun had a thorough education in philosophy and taught it alongside the martial arts. His books made links between the martial arts and Taoist cosmology. Furthermore, as China entered a new more open and modern phase that would make martial arts more accessible to the general public, Sun promoted the concept of practicing martial arts for health reasons rather than combat.

 

This gave birth to the modern idea of Tai Chi Chuan, Pakua and Hsing-I being the “new age” systems for wellbeing, often reinforced with pseudoscientific and superstitious ideas relating to the cultivation of mystical energy. There is no empirical historical evidence to prove that Tai Chi Chuan or any of the other internal arts have their roots in anything more mystical than straightforward combat efficiency. 

 

There are many different reasons why the Asian martial arts became entwined with religion and philosophy, but a major factor has to be China and Japan’s conscious decision to modernize. This modernization, representative of the Japanese change to “Do” from “Jutsu” in their martial arts, meant throwing off the old image of their feudalistic past. The arts’ central message, one that would be embraced by the west throughout the twentieth century, would be about spirituality, health and other non-combat activities. Such areas were the zone of philosophy, and it was the philosophers who pushed it. Sun Lu Tang in China and Ueshiba Morhei, the founder of Aikido, in Japan, lead these efforts. It was no coincidence that Judo was founded by a man who had a high ranking career in the Japanese education system. Education was the way to ensure martial arts survival. If you could prove that martial arts would be helpful to motivate and discipline the subjects of a government then you could rely on the support instead of the oppression of that government. Martial academics led the way for better and for worse, for just as martial arts became more accessible, their objectives became obscure and it let mysticism, showmanship and outright charlatanism through the backdoor.

 

A point I have tried to make with this essay is that great martial arts masters weren’t also great scholars and philosophers and vice versa, it just so happened that the most influential martial arts teachers in the last one hundred years or so were also scholars and philosophers. By way of a more modern comparison the most famous martial artists in the latter part of the twentieth century and today also happen to be actors. It is just as ludicrous to say that being a good actor is integral to being a proficient martial artist or fighter. In both examples we can see why the philosopher and actor have become successful martial artists. They are influential. They can appeal to a wider audience through their ability to articulate or perform. They might well be good martial artists, and this is in no way a slight on their technical ability, but what has helped keep them noticed is their ability to work another skill set.

 

Nevertheless, the philosophical martial artist belief persists to this day. This belief is at the root of something I have come to call the “By-Product Myth”. It is of no surprise that fictional martial arts media is the natural conveyor of this idea – after all it was a martial arts novel that started it all in the first place. Stanley E. Henning writes in his article “Politically Correct Treatment of Myths in Chinese Martial Arts” that the idea Chinese martial arts that descended from the Shaolin Temple came from a novel written between 1904 and 1907 entitled “Travels of Lao Can”. Henning remarks that “there is no indication that it was ever a part of an earlier oral tradition”. After the novel there came the book “Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing” written in 1915 by an unnamed author. This book is often cited as the main source for the pseudo-historic belief in the Shaolin Temple’s high level of importance in pre-twentieth century Chinese martial arts. It didn’t take long for this myth to be completely debunked by an outspoken native Chinese martial artist and historian called Tang Hao, but it still spread to the West and via popular media was repeated enough times for whole schools of martial arts to consider it a fact.

                                                                                               

In conclusion, martial arts survived in the East due to the fact that they became recognised by those who taught and practiced them as a part of their cultural identity. This was also something oppressive governments and occupying powers recognised and it is the reason why they suppressed them. They survived through adaption and taking advantage of the changing times. Those teachers who had skills outside of martial arts used these skills to ensure the survival of their arts, their legacy and, in many instances, their livelihood. This is an understandable reason why the philosophical martial artist became popular. However, there is something else more fundamental than this. In times of peace martial arts teachers realise the limitations inherent in violence. Furthermore, when their students don’t have the short term of goal of having to face violence, as a soldier would, they become more preoccupied with other less tangible battles. Martial arts are then turned into a positive activity. And with positive activity comes a human desire to explore positive thinking. Philosophy is a natural strategy for those who fight intangible battles. With this in mind, I do not believe it is wrong for a martial arts teacher to not only teach philosophy as part of his methodology, but to also use martial arts analogies. After all it makes for good and intelligent writing. However, what is imperative is to understand where the two might not co-exist and also where the analogies and metaphors end. Some argue “Why stay in the forge?” Why indeed, but when you have first looked to martial arts as a means for self-protection it is important to make sure you go through that forge in the first place.

 

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