What is a Martial Art?

BLOG Installment #8: What is a martial art?

It’s a terrible question, one we should perhaps avoid. After all, as E.M. Forster wrote, every act of definition carries us one step farther from the truth. From this point of view it might actually be a stupid question!

But it is also a relevant question, particularly since so much discussion revolves around whether a martial art can compare with something like Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) for purposes of self-defence. (The consensus seems to be: NOT!) As soon as this debate starts, the questions get goofy. “Could you use it to go up against Mike Tyson?” “Do you practice Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan; you know, the fighting kind?” I have actually heard of one instructor who promotes the deadly art of…Tai Ki-do.

Aikido seems to be taking a hit in esteem these days due to its stylized training methods (necessary, if broken bones are to be avoided!), but Tai Chi also has its issues. It’s difficult to mentally connect rooms of seniors practicing what looks to the uninitiated like graceful line-dancing, to what some people claim is a brutally effective combat art. Years ago I did a presentation on Tai Chi throwing methods in the friendship demo’s at the World Ju-Jitsu Championships. Later that night a group of us were talking over some beers and a senior teacher from the British Ju-Jitsu Association remarked that he had until then been unaware that Tai Chi had a combative component!

Combat Training, as one experiences it in the armed forces, teaches methods of killing; one engages in military combat training in order to learn how to violently kill other people. That is the purpose of the exercise. Sport combatives involve learning how to employ violent methods within a set of strictly conventional limits; the purpose is resolutely non-lethal and the methods can be refined so as to either inflict injury or not. In Boxing and MMA one seeks to inflict injury. One gets into the ring with the objective of scoring a knock-out, which is essentially a kind of short-term (hopefully) brain damage inflicted on the opponent. That violence is at the core of the training - the purpose of the training and the guiding intentionality of the techniques deployed. In other combat sports bones may be broken or unconsciousness inflicted – but only if one participant breaks the rules by stubbornly refusing to admit defeat, thereby violating the set of conventions necessary to the maintenance of a law-abiding athletic ethos.

However, in the traditional martial arts there is a difference between the purpose of the training and the intentionality of the techniques. (Thank you Barry Allen for introducing me to this distinction: //www.amazon.ca/Striking-Beauty-Philosophical-Asian-Martial/dp/0231172729. ).

Overwhelmingly the purposes martial artists cite for their training are non-violent. The objective is usually self-improvement. Self-improvement can cover quite a wide range of health issues, both physical and psychological. It also, as in the days of Yang Cheng-fu, can include a search for “spiritual illumination” – and it is in precisely this sense that The Taijiquan Classics speak of the civil aspect of the art. This also was the primary focus of Aikido as taught by Grandmaster Uyeshiba in the years following WWII, although a more overtly combative form of the art is now studied in some quarters.

That said, the intentionality of every posture and movement in a true martial art is based upon martial logic. By intentionality we mean the design element for managing force. For example, Tai Chi originated in military training and over the past four hundred years of its development the shape and movement of the art has been guided by combative logic. So for most of its history Tai Chi has been concerned with the methodology of extreme violence. The same thing is true of almost every other traditional Asian martial tradition.

But that is not why most martial arts are practised today. Today martial arts adherents speak of health, balance, grounding, calmness and a host of other benefits. Yet the martial intentionality of their movements and postures remains essential to the realization of their benefits. The necessity of understanding how to manage force is what protects traditional martial arts from the over-stylization which otherwise compromises the health benefits to be derived from their practice. And along the way, self-defence skills are acquired. Further, unlike Boxing and MMA, in an actual self-defence situation traditional martial arts such as Tai Chi are not restrained by any conventional limits – only by the practitioner’s good sense.

Tai Chi is not practiced violently. While we seek to understand its potentially violent intentionality, we will not admit actual violence into our practice. Nor will we introduce into the art movements which have no martial function and serve only as elements of aesthetic value. In fact, in the martial arts those disciplines which have renounced martial logic in exchange for purely aesthetic effect are scornfully described as “flower fist and brocade leg”. It is into this category that contemporary Wushu falls with its compulsory leaps and twirls devoid of martial sense – martial gymnastics.

A separate issue is martial athletics. In my opinion pushing-hands (tuishou) is one aspect of the traditional art of Taijiquan. But tournament pushing hands is martial sport – not martial art. Competitive tournament sanda also falls into this category. Barry Allen in his book Striking Beauty: a Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts cites one senior Tae-Kwon-Do instructor who states that he trains athletes, not martial artists. Senseii Morio Higaonna, one of the foremost masters of Okinawan Karate-do, has emphasized his opposition to free-sparring and tournaments as activities which are contrary to a traditional martial arts ethos. Martial sports involve contention directed toward establishing who is the winner and who the loser. Traditional martial arts are directed towards the formation of an inner character which is self-confident and has a peaceful relationship with the world.

Can a traditional martial art such as Tai Chi be practised as an aesthetic art? Yes…if the martial intentionality is retained. In it there must be no movement which is self-referential and serves no other purpose than to be beautiful. The performer can in fact express greater beauty by exemplifying within the patterns of movement a control of the balance and flow of Yin and Yang which are at the core of the art’s martial utility and spiritual essence. The objective may be far distant from any expression of violent intent, but the controlled expression of that internal power is the quality which truly reveals the inner beauty of the art. If this is lacking and what we see is devoid of internal power, utterly divorced from the physical logic of combative utility, then we are dealing with a dance form inspired by Taijiquan but not true to its inner values.

Quite a few holes can be driven through this argument. Scholars such as Stanley Henning have cited the historical connections in China between practical and theatrical martial arts, and Mark R. E. Meulenbeld (Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel) has explored the intimate relationship between martial performance and religious ritual. Further, some martial arts such as Ju-Jitsu can be pursued with a focus towards the competitive, the combative, or the purely civil. There is much within the gymnastic beauty of Wushu which retains a martial quality.

But what is offered here, influenced by Allen, is a framework that places our activities into a contemporary context. The practice of the martial arts in today’s world may seem utterly anachronistic. But if we consider the issue in terms of intentionality as opposed to purpose, we have at our disposal a philosophical framework which answers a lot of questions and helps to make sense of what we are doing, how we do it, and why.

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