This multipart column was written on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its launch and its assignment to a writer named Antonio Graceffo, the martial artist who has become black belt's roving reporter in Asia. It presents more of the author's conclusions regarding the state of the world's martial arts.
East and West may never meet. At Shanghai University of Sport, Dr. Dai Guo Bing, dean of the Wushu Department, explained to me the differences between the Chinese arts and Western arts like boxing, wrestling and fencing. He said the commonalities between those three Western styles are identical to their differences from the Chinese styles. One, the Western styles' main purpose is to fight/compete. Two, they don't have a performance component. Three, they cannot be practiced alone.
It would be strange in the West to meet someone who claimed to be a boxer, wrestler or fencer but had never competed. In China, however, you can dedicate yourself to practicing wushu, taolu or tai chi for a lifetime without ever fighting. When called on to perform, practitioners of wushu, taolu and tai chi will do a form. About the best a Western martial artist can do is shadowboxing. And finally, men and women in their 60s, 70s and sometimes 80s who have been practicing Chinese martial arts for a lifetime continue to improve or at least stay healthy and relevant by practicing alone every morning. For Western martial arts, if you do not have a training partner, it's very hard to practice on your own.
Dai explained the reason for the difference: "China is an aesthetic society which developed early. Primitive cultures are concerned about having an apple to eat. But once you have solved the problem of hunger, you say, 'It is not just enough to eat an apple. I also want someone to paint a picture of the apple.'"
This matches the trajectory of martial arts development in most countries. Hundreds or even thousands of years ago, the martial arts were an important means of combat. Eventually, swords, guns and other weapons became common, and the martial arts lost their importance in battle, at which time they began transitioning to a sport art and later to an entertainment art.
Wrestling, boxing and pankration were celebrated at the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. This means that the change from combat art to entertainment art had already begun. The gladiatorial games, which began in 264 B.C., marked a transition from average people practicing combat sports to combat sports being done only by professionals while regular people paid to watch.
Today, many Westerners enjoy watching WWE, but how many practice pro wrestling? Arguably, we could say that pro wrestling and action movies are an evolution of martial arts. Many people pay to watch Jason Bourne use krav maga to take out terrorists, but how many actually use their martial art to take out terrorists?
Meanwhile, Chinese martial arts remain arts with old men and women getting up every morning to do their forms in the park.
Consider India's kalaripayattu (also spelled kalaripayit), one of the oldest martial arts in the world with records dating back to 300 B.C. Today, it has no real combat or even combat-sport element. It's all performance.
Authentic martial arts research is getting harder. Case in point: Bodhidharma (Damo in Chinese) is the monk who brought Buddhism to China in the fifth or sixth century. The Chinese credit him for having established the physical training regimen at Shaolin Temple that led to the creation of Shaolin kung fu. The Chinese claim he was Indian, but now many sources suspect he may have been Central Asian or even Persian. Many Indians insist that he was Indian and that having been a priest, he would have been trained in kalaripayattu. Consequently, they say that Shaolin kung fu is actually based on that style.
If you look at kalaripayattu and Shaolin kung fu, you will see little if any similarity. In particular, the Indian art has a lot of leaping and flying, most of its forms use weapons and it's all performance-based. Those are a few of the reasons a connection seems unlikely.
Wrestling, boxing and pankration were celebrated at the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. This means that the change from combat art to entertainment art had already begun.
A few years ago, however, an Indian master featured in a documentary claimed to have proof that Shaolin kung fu was based on his style of kalaripayattu. The master had his students perform and, sure enough, you could see an unmistakable connection between this version of the art and Shaolin kung fu. But that master also owned a television and possibly a computer. Is it possible he simply integrated what he saw on his screen into his style? During the decade that I've written this column, I've seen this problem crop up again and again. Martial arts masters living in the jungle or in a remote village often claim to have preserved some original martial art and their proof is that their art contained an armbar or the guard or the Tony Jaa flying elbow. In the end, it's generally nothing more than proof that they own a TV.
Military fighting arts are on the rise. Members of the armed forces and the police have always learned martial arts, even thousands of years ago. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military decided that modern weapons and jungle warfare largely rendered hand-to-hand fighting obsolete and therefore cut the hand-to-hand training most soldiers received to about eight hours. Rangers and Green Berets received more but not a lot more. Starting in the 1990s, however, the mission of the military shifted toward anti-terrorism, and hand-to-hand combat experienced a resurgence.
One of the reasons the traditional arts found limited acceptance within police and military communities was the arts took years to learn. A small amount of traditional training was deemed all but useless. Of course, some police forces had serious martial arts programs, such as in Japan, where many of the best judo teams were produced by the police.
Similarly, sambo was designed specifically for the Soviet military. Founders Anatoly Kharlampiyev and Vasili Oshchepkov were judo black belts with a direct lineage to the Kodokan in Japan. They combined several wrestling styles with strikes from other martial arts to form an effective combat system.
However, despite the fact that a few police departments and military units have included some martial arts in their training, most do not emphasize it.
Since the aforementioned transition in the 1990s and 2000s, combatives has been taught to military and police forces around the world. Most interpretations of combatives were developed similarly to Russian sambo, which emphasizes movements from a variety of arts that have been deemed practical and efficient, as well as easy to teach and easy to learn. One such art is krav maga, the Israeli system that has risen to prominence among not only the military and police but also ordinary citizens in need of effective defense against armed attackers.
These combat-oriented systems are one of the growth areas in the martial arts, with more and more schools popping up around the world. Busy people feel confident that they can invest a reasonable amount of time in training and walk away with survival skills. They also believe — rightly or wrongly — that they don't have to be in great physical shape to use what they learn.
(To be continued.)
Antonio Graceffo's book Warrior Odyssey is available at shop.blackbeltmag.com.
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