So, how do we judge the efficacy of a style? Is it fair to judge a style of martial arts based on how well they punch box? Or maybe we should judge them on how well they wrestle? There are many reasons to study the martial arts and we all begin training for different reasons. Maybe you have heard of the many different styles of martial arts and thought about the efficacy of a style. But what about styles of martial art that don't spar? Are they really a martial art?
These debates are as old as the hills. Literally! Martial arts scholars have been debating this for a very long time. Miyamoto Musashi even wrote about his dislike for the direction that many martial arts schools had taken during his time writing The Book of Five Rings in 1645. He said that the other schools had taken a more "flowery" approach. He chose to call them flowery because of an analogy that he used to describe the philosophy of training. Musashi's metaphor of the bulb and the flower is similar to Western philosophy of "the chicken or the egg", the "bulb" being the student, the "flower" being the technique. He stated that most schools seemed to be overly concerned with their technique and its beauty. Musashi writes, "In this kind of way of strategy, both those teaching and those learning the way are concerned with colouring and showing off their technique, trying to hasten the bloom of the flower."
So naturally, I do agree with Musashi on this in most respects. I started my training in Tae Kwon Do, a style that is increasingly guilty of this type of "flowery" training philosophy. But, as a 15 year old boy who loved Kung Fu movies and flashy kicks, the beauty of the art is what fascinated me, captivated my imagination, and sustained my interests. It kept me asking the everlasting question: How did they do that? Those flashy demonstrations enraptured my fantasy, and made me want to learn the art for myself.
Unfortunately, I was not aware of the dangers lurking in this kind of training philosophy. You see, "the hook" was those flashy skills, but the promise was self-defense and real life fighting. I followed the pattern of millions of people practicing Tae Kwon Do and believed that my study and training was preparing me for real life fighting. And to be completely fair, I did learn a thing or two. We sparred regularly, and I knew I was pressure testing my skills in the sport of Tae Kwon Do.
Later on, I started exploring different styles of martial arts and discovered just how much I was missing out on. I still love the art of Tae Kwon Do, but now I respect the martial arts in a very different way than before. I began to learn the different ways of studying the fighting arts and the difference between training for self-defense, sport, artistic expression, and training for war.
In this mind map I show you the different aspects of training in the martial arts.
We must take into consideration that, historically, many martial arts were actually too deadly for the general public. The governments of the past outlawed the practice of the martial arts and forced many schools to close down permanently – especially, if/when they represented a faction of rebellion against the government in power. So the real question of the old times was: How can we preserve our art form?
This is why we see so many martial arts that focus so much on cultural preservation. Cultural preservation has been the age old political defense mechanism of the martial arts. Even against totalitarian governments, even against colonial oppression, even against a thousand years of time, dark ages, and intentional repression. Cultural preservation is part of the beauty of martial arts and also its saving grace.
Some great examples of this are most clearly seen in Modern Wushu, Capoeira, Aikido, and Taekkyon. All of these styles are what I call, "The Ballet of Martial Arts." They all feature rigorous training of the control over the body and the mind but have very little to do with real fighting or full contact sparring. They are styles that focus on the mind, body, spiritual and cultural significance of the martial arts. The truth is that for many practitioners of martial arts, blood sport fighting is not of any interest. And that is OK! Although I enjoy the bloodsports and training like a fighter, I also don't want to commit my life to being a sport fighter or go into the military and fight to death. Yea... no thanks.
What I have learned from this is that all of these aspects of martial arts are relevant and useful. All of these different styles have something to offer a student. I learned that every student picks up the martial arts for different reasons and that solidarity in the martial arts is what has helped to preserve the art forms from extinction.
So why do you train?