Historical Martial Arts

Perspectives: Traditional and Historical Martial Arts

This blog is about a few rather disparate subjects. I am careful not to claim mastery or expertise in any of these, just experience in the field. My language experience is from my days in professional interpreting.  So I approach the linguistic questions from that point of view. The historical questions have always been asked in order to inform my Martial art practice today. My training and practice are informed by my days as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Performance Enhancement Specialist (nice big titles there!) with the Nation Academy of Sports Medicine.  My traditional training in Taiji and Ma Shi Tongbei informs my martial art and shades my interpretations. This gives me a very practical way of interpretation. In fact, if my perspective can bee summed up, it is as “practical”.

Mine is only one perspective, but I make it a point to explore the perspectives of many other people. Folks that I respect and those that I disagree with. In fact, I at times feel like am able to straddle multiple words and view points because of my “outsider” status and admittedly incomplete background in the academics .  Each area of my interest seems to have its own world and culture. I tend to group these view points and perspectives into categories: historical/traditional, scientific, and pragmatic. This goes for my language studies, training and fitness, and martial arts.

As I said, each perspective has its own concerns and ideas. There is of course a large variety of opinions with in these groups but the concerns they share are indicative of the outlook and a product of their culture. To start this discussion, I feel that the Traditional and Historical approaches should be introduced first. This is admittedly a bias on my part as most of my martial arts experience comes from these perspectives. But, when we examine the martial arts we practice, we most often start by looking to the past. It is the information that we glean from that search that gives us the material that we practice in present times.

Historical/Traditional Defined

First off, let’s define what I mean by these terms. Each of these approaches is concerned with specific types of information. Traditional information is contained in media like art, literature, music, theatre, and popular folk tales and stories. Historical information is found in the historical records, chronicles, news or communications or anything that records sequences of events, dates, places, specific people, and the general context in which these events happen. While the information they are concerned with is from different sources, the goals are often the same. To record certain aspects of the history of a group, in our case, a martial arts school.

Chinese Opera is well known for its connection to martial arts. Manny of the popular myths and legends of Kung Fu come from opera. This is a good example of a traditional means of transmission.

Historical vs Traditional

My Friend John tells a story of one of his family traditions from time to time. In his family, it was tradition when cooking a ham to cut it in half before throwing it in the oven One day John asked his mother why they always cut the ham in half.

 His mother replied, “I don’t know, your Grandmother did it this way. Ask her.”

 Which he did. She also replied, “I don’t know, my mother did it that way.”

 Fortunately for John (and this anecdote) his Great- Grandmother was still living. John inquired of her, “Why did you cut the ham in half?” She replied, “The pan was too small.” 

The intersection of history and tradition, ladies and gentlemen. These two things are like the chocolate and peanut butter of the peanut butter cup of martial arts. It is through these two approaches that we discover our past. The story above highlights some common phenomena that we encounter when we try to find out where our traditions come from.

These two approaches can be considered to be two separate categories, but for our purposes, they both represent connections to the past. Connections to the past is not always the most relevant to current practices. Times change and needs change with growing knowledge. But, understanding where we fit into this continuum can be illuminating and help Bring about innovation in unexpected ways and I think that both traditional and historical studies should be made when looking into the past with these systems.

The traditional angle is one of lineage and the relationships of a sort of family. One’s teacher was taught by so and so who was in turn taught by what’s his name who was also taught by that one guy in Beijing etc. Most of us in the West have a particular experience of this. Lineage is often used as a way to give prestige to a style or method, establish a sort of authenticity, and allows us to feel more connected to the culture and underlying principles of a cultural art. It is not uncommon for people to introduce themselves as students of and present some sort of lineage upon meeting other martial artists. 

Traditional martial arts tend to record their history through a series of teachers and students. Here is an old photo sowing some famous masters of Chinese martial arts form the Republic Period .

This is not without its pitfalls or detractors. Sometimes, people can rely on lineage alone to give them their prestige. They use it as a way to give themselves high standing and take away standing of rival styles. Some martial arts claim superiority over others merely because of the chain of teachers that they may boast. Others invent lineages to give them a false sense of antiquity or clim some sort of prowess. Still others use it as a way to not have to demonstrate their true skill. All of this is a problem and it occurs far too often in the martial arts world. But tradition and lineage can be a useful guide and window into past practitioners if compared against a historical rationale.

The historical perspective is like the traditional one except that it strives to be as objective as possible. Historical studies help to inform the intricate nuances that traditional arts have in common. The origins of these practices is often surprising and more often illuminating. There is often quite a disconnect from the traditional stories, which are more akin to folklore than history, and the actual events. This causes some to discount the traditional point of view as inaccurate and unreliable and has the effect of making the historical point of view appear more accurate, which is not necessarily the case.

Period writings and treatises are a large part of Historical martial art.

The limitations of the historical approach to martial arts are fairly simple, we do not have access to the original intents or motivations with which these authors wrote. We are subject to single points of view in often incomplete or anecdotal texts and writings. The language used in many of the texts is difficult to understand and the subject matter of martial arts is already so subjective, that many of these accounts from history are no more demonstrative than the traditional explanations. We will likely never have more than an incomplete picture of the past. But that is the study of history in all its forms. Clear away the mists to catch just a glimpse.

Lineage and Traditional Martial Arts

A Photo of the founders of a Traditional Japanese Karate Dojo in Florida. The lineage teachers photos are above the mirror. North Wind Martial Arts Academy.

Lineage is the concept at the heart of much of the traditional link to the past. For instance, schools of Traditional Chinese Wushu will, more often than not, place great importance on this concept. The idea is linked to the Confucian ideal of respect for your ancestors that is such a strong current through Chinese culture and history. This concept being so strong carries with it some mixed feelings. As stated above, lineage is something that can be and often is abused for the sake of making money or gaining “face” ( another concept that needs some explanation buts out of the scope of this piece). We understand that over reliance on lineage can be a detrimental and, truth be told, lineage tell us nothing about an individuals personal skill or teaching ability. The being said, lineage does have some important benefits and truths associated with it that make it impossible to ignore.

The basic concept should not be difficult to understand. If one has a good teacher, who in turn had a good teacher, that person is potentially gaining the benefits from both of those teachers. If they learn well and become teachers or coaches themselves, they will add to this lineage with their own knowledge and skill. The greater the pool of skill, the more skill there is to be had. While this is not a hard and fast fact (there are plenty of terrible students of great teachers) there is something to be said for the rationale.

If one is studying a subject like a martial art, it is very important to make sure that the information you are getting is true and correct. While there is a wide range of effectiveness that teachers can exhibit, it is the core system or subject matter that they teach which is the first step to good , quality martial practice. If one’s system is not tested or completed by the teacher, this can translate to no skill being passed on to students. But as a new comers to the art, how does one know? Lineage is one way that people have approached this problem. By keeping track of lineage, people have some method of vetting their teachers and system. While not perfect it does yield some useful information.

The Problem of Fame

Much of what we have to go on when it comes to lineage comes down to fame. Famous masters and styles will tend to dominate the landscape (by definition). But this fame is not a good indicator of skill or quality. Respect and notoriety are qualities that we should look for, indeed, but there are things deeper than simply looking for that which is most popular or well known. Nor should we ignore that which has a big following out of hand. That fame and notoriety should be accompanied with praise and respect from their peers and colleagues. That people know about a style is not enough. What do experts in the field say about them? What reputation do they carry with regard to skill amongst their peers. 

Yang Style Taijiquan is arguably one of the worlds most popular martial arts. Because of its fame, it has many branches and off shoots. There is also much written about the art in the past.
Obscure styles like Ba Pan Zhang are often difficult to learn about.

Then you have the issue of small communities. One can be very famous amongst a small group and be unheard of outside of that group. So, it can be challenging to make sense  of lineages that are from lesser known systems and areas. Those that are almost unheard of can be so obscure and unusual as to be almost inaccessible by most modern people. At this point, talks of lineage become less productive. Lineage becomes an expression of a relationship more than one of prestige. And while this attitude is often given voice in the west, it is seldom put in to practice. People still tend to place either too much or too little emphasis on lineage and unfairly use it as a judging criteria.

Lineages are links to the past, but also they form the basis for division and the branching of styles and arts into new ones. This process is always happening and can have effects on many things that affect the style. Lineages are important but should be used in conjunction with historical verification if a clear picture is to be created of the time.

Traditional History

These lineages use a variety of ways to identify themselves and their members. Traditional histories are a large part of this and every martial art has stories about the exploits of past teachers and students. Especially in the well established and famous schools, these stories and personalities become important markers of identification. Different versions of the same story will define different branches within a “style”. Some of these stories are shared by several arts all attributed to their own teacher. But, these stories also serve to form a rudimentary historical narrative. The stories themselves become important for students to learn to induct them into the lineage. 

These traditional histories are created organically and passed down in a myriad of ways. Sometimes orally, among less literate populations, some in art and theatre, and others would write them down at various stages of their development. These stories are mostly apocryphal, even if they speak to real historical events to place them in time. But this is not necessarily anyone’s fault. These traditional histories grow out of a lack of access to the information about to the true events. A centuries long game of “Telephone” ensues and at times, the resulting story has morphed beyond recognition.

Ewart Oakeshott(25 May 1916 – 30 September 2002) was perhaps the most influential historian dealing with weapons and their use in history.

Historians have largely ignored martial arts history in favor of military histories consisting of battles and political repercussions for this very reason. Even in Europe, few any took on the study martial arts or weaponry as its own discipline. This began to change in the later 20th century as more and more analysis’ of martial arts and weapon making texts began to surface. Today there is an entire art devoted to the practice of interpreting old martial arts texts from Europe named precisely that; Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) and there is now and international conference on Martial Arts Studies. Bringing the rigor of a historical perspective has allowed many arts to continue into the future.

The Internet and the Availability of Historical Sources

It can be assumed, to a certain extent, that the traditional histories were created without the aid of much written or recorded sources. Therefore, these traditional histories can been seen more like folklore than historical accountings of events. It can also be assumed that they formed the way they did because they had no access to the more academic and scholarly historical sources or institutions. As such, they are more subject to change and intrusions by the teller.

Tang Hao (Chinese: 唐豪; pinyin: Táng Háo) or Tang Fan Sheng (1887–1959)- one of the pioneers of Chinese Historical research into the martial arts.

But, this has been changing. There was a growth of academic interest the martial arts and weaponry in both Europe and Asia through out the Twentieth Century. This has been accelerated beyond any predictions with the advent of information technology and the internet. Now, hundreds of historical sources, texts, letters, treatises, et.al are available and accessible to lay persons everywhere. One no longer needs to be a member of an institution or a student in a University that happens to have these sources in their possession. 

Over recent years, more and more translations are becoming available. Access to these sources has spurred on learning these old languages and attempts to bring these texts to modern readers. The historical martial art movement has gained an  enormous amount of steam through technology and from the communities that are springing up around these topics. This is yet another boon that the field has gotten from internet and other technology. The access and distribution of this material is on a scale we have not seen before in history.

The Odd Couple: History and Tradition

The relationship between History and Tradition can be a contentious one. They have the same basic goal but have differing methods and ideals the they use in that service. But, they are intimately tied to one another in many ways. Both strive for a connection to the past. Tradition reaches back for identity and prestige. History looks back to make sense of the time, find contexts, and decree true from false. It is plain to see that each these outlooks will have their own emphasis and criteria. 

Wu Song Da Hu : Wu song hits the tiger. Tales of heroes populate much of the traditional histories of martial arts in Asia. .

A traditional perspective may be one of talking of great teachers in their lineage, of the innovations to the system or battles won or even contests with rival schools. They are concerned about these things because it tells one about the group they have chosen to be a part of. Followers of a school of martial art have a great deal of reverence for the ideals of said style. They are not really concerned too much with the historical veracity of these tales. Nor are they overly concerned with getting as many points of view on these events. Their impact and purpose is not affected by their truth value in the historical sense. It does not matter if Yang Lu Chan, Dong Hai Quan, or Cheng San Feng held a bird in the hand and prevented it from taking off. It doesn’t even really matter much if it happened at all. The point of the story is not one of history.

The goal in historical studies is to find the most accurate information about the time period. This is done by researching as many different points of view as possible. There is no allegiance to a narrative or continuum other than that of time period. By looking at many different accounts of the time and of specific events, Historians can piece together a more complete and accurate accounting. As more information is added, the clearer the picture becomes. This often means dealing with contradictory accounts, sifting through other unrelated subjects, and authenticating the material being examined. This process of finding, authenticating, and collating information is the bulk of the work that historical research entails. It can be daunting and tedious. But without this diligence to the facts, we would never be able to clear the mists of the past as much as we do.

These two perspectives co-exist today. As they always have. But now that we have better access to information from history and we can inform the traditional practices with some historical veracity. The problem comes in when the two are not clearly defined. Like in John’s story about the “ham and the pan”, we often do traditional activities with no thought as to why. When we are asked, it is commonly the case that people express a rationale rather than a reason. When we research and find out the truth, it can be surprising, and a little disappointing if the facts deviate from our expectations. 

What We Learn

Ma MingDa 馬明達 Scholar and martial artist. One of the few leading academics who is is also a practitioner of traditional martial arts.

Each of these approaches or mindsets yield different benefits and have some different deficits. By combining the two methods into one more unified practice, the more of these benefits and the less of the detriments are available. There are a few figures out there that embody this pairing. These teachers and authors (like Professor Ma MingDa of Jinan University, GuangZhou) use their traditional backgrounds to inform their historical research. By finding intersections, we can advance our understanding of our roots.

Through our traditional backgrounds we get to meet our fore bearers. Not as they were, but as they have become now. What is important for students of a particular school to know that makes them a part of that school? Which stream of individuals has had a hand in making the art we practice today? The traditions we follow can still help identify us and bring us together. This should not be hard to convince most traditional martial artists of being true. Many of us love the traditional arts for this very quality.

But through historical research, we get to understand the context in which those traditions grew. We can better grasp the needs and concerns of those who lived these lives. It can show us, more accurately, where we have come from and how long we have been at it. By tempering the sometimes outlandish claims of tradition with historical fact, we can better understand the metaphors and symbols we find in our traditional systems. We can get even more meaning out our practices and study. We can place it in time and in relation to ourselves. And we can find new connections that may have been lost to oral tradition and “word of mouth”. 

Reclamation, Reconstruction, or Revision 

So, what do we do with this? Different schools, groups, and individuals are going to favor some approach to their art. Wether it be inherited from their school or a product of their situation, everyone will be trying to do something slightly different and personal. And when we re speaking of historical and traditional arts, this urge seems to be very strong. Traditional and historical mind sets tend want to accomplish particular things by looking to the past. Both are seated with some basic idea that the teachers and writers from history are the authorities we are subject to today.  That if these things survived through the trials of the old days, they must have been worth something. And so we get a spectrum of attitudes.

WuDang Swordsmen on Wudang Shan.

On one end of this spectrum we have the goal to reclaim the art as it was practiced in the past. Sometimes this is expressed as conservation of these styles. The conceit here being that one must practice as closely to the original practitioners as possible. The words of old masters are given a lot of weight as the student tries to piece together what it looked like “back in the day”. The original intent of the styles founders is also given much attention. This extreme on the scale represents the idea that the martial arts were better back then and include skills that have been “lost” due to modern indolence. The claim is essentially, we are trying to reclaim a lost art that was superior to our modern methods and continue an unbroken line.

German Longsword practitioner, Björn Rüther, and fellow practicing longsword in period clothing.

The other extreme on the spectrum is that of reconstruction. Many are attempting to reconstruct the period practices from the written evidence we have in the form of treatises and other texts. There is a large concern not only on accuracy of translation and interpretation but also of practicality. The assumption in this extreme is that if the old master decided to include it, it must have practical value. By comparing drawings, descriptions, and body mechanics practitioners strive to recreate things from the past. There is no attempt to connect modern day practitioners to past masters as with an unbroken lineage of instructors. It is assumed these are arts that were no longer being practiced.

Two Halves of a Whole.

These are two extremes. Most people out there will fall somewhere in between when talking about their attitude to the past. We all know that it is essentially impossible to completely recreate something as it was originally. And we also know that past systems of anything are goin to be less sophisticated as a rule than their modern counterparts. We have no real access to the internal motivations or meanings of old masters, wether they have written things down or passed them down orally, everything we do is an interpretation.

But, we must go on something. We must base our ideas on some concrete thing that existed. Wether it be historical or a tradition, these things are anchors for our evolution into new vistas. And these are only talking about the past. We should never solely rely on past methods, no matter how well we know them to have been held. We are always adding to our knowledge. To be married to the past and not accept new information is what many critics say is inevitable with such approaches to martial art.

Competitive longsword

I do not think it is inevitable that people will get stuck in the past. It is indeed a common problem, but as I hope I outlined a little bit here, the two approaches can be mutually beneficial. We can gain great perspective when we research and try to find out if certain events actually happened or happened the way we understand them. We can decode many of our traditions to better understand their utility. We can also view the events and persons involved historically and learn more about how they might have viewed the world they lived in by understanding their traditions. History can tell about a particular event where and when it happened and what the underlying factors were. But literature, theatre, and art can make these events real for us. The more real they feel to us, the more we can see ourselves in the past. We can identify where our traditions come from and how they continue and connect us to our forebears.

So, keep cutting the preverbal ham in half. Or don’t. Now that you know that it had nothing to do with anything dealing with cooking, you are free to get a bigger pan.

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