The language of Martial Arts. Life, Context, Awareness, Translation, Interpretation, Application.

I have been fortunate enough to study martial arts from China, Japan and Korea. Having studied martial and health arts for more than 25 years I consider my art to be borderless but with deep traditional roots. When I first read the 20 guiding principles of Karate my main study at the time was Chinese Martial arts, however, the language, sentiment and over riding message resonated with all I aspired to as a practitioner and the values that I had been taught as student. The fact the book’s title made specific reference to Karate did not matter, the fundamentals of communication in traditional martial arts is the same regardless of the original language.
People like to compartmentalise and lay claim to something being the ‘best’, when considering the martial arts the focus is often placed on the combative element. When objectively appraised most practitioners of martial arts do not practise to develop combat ability, they have neither the time, focus or need for such skills. They practise for the best possible reason, because they enjoy it.
I believe all martial arts are effective if practised diligently with integrity. The best teachers and practitioners look to develop themselves and their art through the physical, mental, philosophical and technical elements of their practise. Fearless and without ego they seek to better themselves and their students understanding of their art and life.
Positive consciousness needs to be taken into all aspects of practise, application is determined by context and intent. You should not need to move outside your art to find solutions to health or combat situations, a complete system contains all such tools within it. That said, learning is an on-going process and should be allowed to blossom in all environments; an action, word or slight change in perspective can help positively inform your own outlook. The grass is not always greener but this idea should not impede development, far better to have an informed, open outlook on life. “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them, that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Lao Tzu
Today interacting with other practitioners is made easy through international travel and the internet. When we look back to the documented origins of health and martial arts it is fair to say means of transport and communication were not the same but teachers of the arts have always been compelled to pass on their knowledge. In more recent times Che Soo was one of the main teachers and propagators of the Chinese arts in the UK. During his working life he travelled around the country teaching as he went, he even visited west Cumbria and took classes at the Dojo.
Interaction and evolution of Chinese and Japanese martial artist has been documented in relation to Judo, Kendo, Jujitsu and Karate. It stands to reason, much as it is today, that if a martial artist visits another place they are eager to explore what is on offer and how it is being taught. What’s more in times of war understanding the opponents tactics strengths and weakness was fundamental to ensure victory. As outlined by Sun Tzu “know your enemy and know yourself you need not fear the result of one hundred battles”. Our reasons for practising may have evolved slightly but the fundamentals of relevance and effectiveness in health or martial practices are still evident philosophically and rationally.
I believe lots of martial arts are lost in translation. Not in a literal sense of language but on almost every other level. The arts were traditionally developed for survival in the most fundamental sense, health and martial as one. Over the years traditional martial arts have become diluted for many a reason. When Bruce Lee became a star, Chee Soo took his art and spilt it into three disciplines. Tai Chi, Feng Shou, and Chi Shu. Bruce Lee and others made Kung Fu, Karate and other martial arts popular, the ability and desire to generate income lead to renewed marketing. Marketing led to bigger class numbers, increased class numbers led to ‘client management’ techniques being developed. More teachers appeared and the need to develop, generate and manage income streams replaced the essence and understanding of an art. This loss of grounding resulted in a significant increase in teachers and misguided practise.
A watering and at times dumbing down of knowledge and content has affected all Japanese and Chinese arts in the UK, Europe and beyond. There are now so many teachers teaching different elements of an art it is sometimes difficult to see what is being taught. I have seen lots of teachers delivering ‘combat’/martial techniques that would not work in any context, never mind the one being highlighted. It is pleasing to see people enjoying themselves but I also believe the essence of an art should not be lost. It is important to ensure that whilst teaching and learning techniques evolve they still compliment the principles laid down by the founders of any art. I don’t remember reading any manuscripts where a master who had dedicated their life to the practise of an art said: “Teach any old shit, I don’t care as long as the coin is coming in”.
The reality versus romance dichotomy is as relevant in martial arts as it is in all areas of life. As a bare minimum we should show the art and the student the respect they deserve by being honest about what we teach. Whether practice is for health, movement, combat, self-defence, sport or just for fun, the means gives strength to the end if the end is transparent.
In form and in application we strive for ‘natural’ movement to optimise power generation, fluidity, speed and efficiency of our body in a given context. The goal of a martial art is the same regardless of the country from which it originates, it is merely our lack of understanding that would suggest otherwise. A bloc or parry may have a different name, foot positions may vary but if we understand the essence and the aim of a particular movement or set of movements an experienced martial artist should be able to determine how and what needs interpreting. The fundamentals of balance, posture, and technique are relevant to all bodies and all martial arts. If we keep these principles in mind we can decipher any martial language.
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