The Internet explosion has enabled us to access volumes of content which was previously accessible only through books, magazines, DVDS, video cassettes, and word of mouth, all with the click of a finger. It has created a “network society” and has made it easier to exchange ideas on a myriad of subjects, thus shaping and re shaping public awareness.
Among the many online applications, social media has played a significant role in spreading information, influencing the climate of opinion and at times even changing the way that people perceive previously established beliefs and traditions. The perception of the world of martial arts and all of its traditions and practices is one such sphere that has changed and continues to change in the minds of people with the advancement of this age.
Today, there are numerous online platforms used as forums for discussing all manner of martial arts related topics.While at a first glance most of these forums may come across as containing regular discourse in that there are contributions that are informative, argumentative, humorous and even downright witless, one recurring theme which sparks fierce debate in almost every martial arts related forum is the effectiveness of traditional martial arts versus the effectiveness of modern martial arts (or in most cases mixed martial arts).
Traditional Martial Arts vs MMA. Keyboard Combat
I have engaged in many arguments on the subject, some of which were civil while others would occasionally devolve into keyboard sparring matches where inflammatory statements, trolling and even ad hominem attacks became part of the fray. I would like to think that I know better now and that my emotional maturity level has improved to some degree, as I have learned that there will always be people who make what I perceive to be a brainless discharge of comments and not every one of these should warrant a duel.
Of course, one might be curious as to which side I was on during these arguments, whether I was a stalwart defender of the older established systems of fighting or an upstart advocate of the modern day combat sports which are continuously tried and tested, and also highly marketed. While I intend to give my stance on this issue later in this blog, I will say for now that my perspective on the subject is not unlike that of everything else in life in that it has changed over time and continues to change as time goes by.
Before going into what my opinion is on the subject of traditional martial arts vs modern martial arts, I would like to first try my hand at explaining what I think the two practices are and why for sometime now there has been somewhat of a schism between the two camps.
WHAT ARE TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS?
A quick Webster’s search will define the word “Tradition” as “An inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”. This definition can apply to classical martial arts of a number of cultures, yet for some odd reason most tend to associate the words “Traditional martial arts” solely with the systems of combat which originate within the regions of Asia and more specifically East Asia.
I don’t know exactly when, how, or why this came to be, however, if we were to briefly review the history of the spread of East Asian martial arts to the rest of the world, and more specifically the western hemisphere, It is possible that we may better understand their impact on western culture, and why they are considered by many to be the embodiment of traditional martial arts.
WESTERN AWARENESS OF EAST ASIAN MARTIAL ARTS
According to early Greek historians, Europeans have been exploring Asia as far back as the 6th Century BC. Among the earliest explorers during this period was a sea captain called Scylax who hailed from the then Greek territory of Caryanda and was said to have sailed the course of the Indus river at the behest of the Persian King Darius I.
Over the centuries, contact between the powerful empires of the East and West would only increase, and trade routes would gradually connect from Southern Europe to Thrace, Anatolia, Central Asia, and China. Other routes also spanned from The Mediterranean to the Arabian peninsular, India and Southeast Asia. These trade routes eventually became known as “The Silk Road” and would play an important part in economic and cultural trade until the 18th century.
While it is important to acknowledge that the East-West connection goes as far back as the B.C. era, and that cultural exchange between the two regions stems from the ancient past, it is not necessary to dissect antiquity in order to understand the transmission of Asian martial arts to the west, as the majority of the familiar styles today gained prominence outside of their respective places of origin, as recently as the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Within the East Asian cultural sphere, China had been a major influence in the region for centuries, however towards the end of the 19th century, the country experienced social, political, and economic instability, all while suffering the indignation of being exploited by foreign powers as the ruling dynasty collapsed from within.
Because of these misfortunes, China was no longer regarded as the “great celestial empire” that it once was, and was derided by western powers to the extent of being referred to as “sick man of Asia”. It is here that Chinese nationalism began to emerge, and various groups began to heavily promote cultural practices of which traditional martial arts were an important focus.
In the early 20th century, the Chinese nationalist party “Kuomintang” (KMT) became the sole ruling party in China and it was during this time that many of the Chinese martial arts that we know of today flourished. Martial arts schools were encouraged to openly teach, and considerable effort was made by the government to promote the indigenous fighting arts as well as to create a study structure in order to reform older martial practices for the purpose of military combat.
It should be noted that around this time martial arts were referred to as Goushu (national arts) and the Zhongyang Guoshu Guan (Central National Arts Academy) was created to oversee the development of martial arts on a national level. It was also around this time that public matches were heavily promoted, and it was not uncommon for martial artists to seek to prove themselves and their style by challenging other fighters. In some cases, matches against foreign fighters may also have been heavily promoted, as in such an environment, the possibility of a local fighter winning a fight against a foreigner would would have brought pride to the nation.
Because of China’s heavy interaction with the west during this period, as well as having had its territory, namely Hong Kong and the Kowloon peninsula being ceded to the British empire since 1841, western presence was as strong as it had ever been in the country and naturally western awareness of Chinese culture and by extension Chinese martial arts would have only increased with time.
In the 20th Century, Hong Kong Cinema played an influential roll in popularizing Traditional Chinese martial arts. The biggest breakout star of the genre both in Asia and North America was Bruce Lee who would become an icon and influence generations of martial artists.
Further east, the island nation of Japan was also going through social change. During the 19th century, feudalism was abolished and western political influence significantly increased. The indigenous Martial arts which once went hand in hand with medieval warfare were now being transformed into practices for physical education and personal growth. It was also around this time that Japanese Imperialism came to the forefront, and conflict would ensue with China and Russia over the agenda to aggressively expand territory.
Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan would decisively defeat both China and Russia in military warfare. As a result of these victories, the Liaotung Peninsula, Taiwan, the Penghu islands, Sakhalin Island and Korea were all effectively annexed as part of the empire of Japan. The expanding empire would also later go on to invade Manchuria, Jehol and parts of Southeast Asia .
Japanese expansionism played an important roll in the spread of Japanese martial arts. With Japanese occupation came the Japanese education system, and at this time Gendai budō (martial arts established after the Meiji restoration) were an integral part of this system. Styles such as Judo, Karatedo and Kendo were all part of Japanese education.
It is also worth mentioning that China and Russia suffering defeat at the hands of japan would also be an influential factor in both countries revising their methods of military combat training, and these revisions would later go on to influence the development of combat sports in both countries.
Like most of the neighboring countries of the region, western exposure to the indigenous martial arts of Japan would have increased with trade and social interaction, however most sources site the USA led Allied occupation of Japan (1945-1952) after World War II as a significant era in the transmission of Japanese martial arts to the west, as at this time soldiers and marines stationed on the islands became exposed to popular arts such as Judo, Karate and Jujitsu, and as a result many of them effectively learned these disciplines and took them back to North America.
While it is possible that the practice of martial arts in Korea may date back to the earliest known periods of the countries’s existence, most of the native martial arts that we know of today were discovered and/or rediscovered after the Japanese annexation of the peninsula (1910-1945). Among the Korean traditional martial arts which exist today, Taekwondo is the most widely known as over the years it has evolved into an International sport. In the year 2000 the sport of Taekwondo officially became an official Olympic medal sport.
The Korean war (1950-1953) and post-war foreign military presence on the peninsula played a significant role in western awareness of Korean martial arts, as it was around this time that the older martial arts traditions were being rediscovered and synthesized with those introduced under Japanese rule. There was also effort to unify these arts for the purpose of military training. Many foreign servicemen stationed in Korea around this time would study martial arts such as Taekwondo, Hapkido and Tang soo do.
Traditional martial arts from Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia vary from country to country. Hundreds of fighting styles and sub styles were born within the region, and many of these styles are classed under the umbrella term “Silat”. Styles of Silat as well as other unique fighting styles rooted in Southeast Asia such as Escrima stick fighting (from the Philippines), and Lethwei (From Myanmar) are relatively well-known throughout the rest of the world today.
While these martial arts have gained appeal over the years, the style from the region which initially gained the most popularity in the west during the 20th Century is a combat sport from Thailand called Muay Thai.
Muay Thai also known as ” the art of eight limbs” was developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when King Rama V and later his son King Rama VII sought to systemize older forms of combat used in warfare, and to create a full recreational contact sport which emphasized respect and spirituality, yet remained useful for self defense.
One of the earliest notable teachers who brought Muay Thai to the U.S.A. during the late 1960s was Surachai Sirisute. Sirisute would teach many students and would also found The Thai Boxing Association of the USA. During this era, the awareness of Muay Thai slowly increased in North America as other stand up fighting arts such as kickboxing, and full contact karate had already risen to popularity.
Muay Thai practitioners became known for their superior conditioning, bone breaking shin kicks, and elbow strikes which could hit an opponent from various angles. As the popularity of mixed martial arts increased during the 90s and early 2000s, Muay Thai became the go to style for many fighters who hoped to become superior strikers.
Asian Immigration to the Americas
Between the 1800s to early 1900s, there was large-scale immigration of Asian laborers to North America, The Caribbean, Latin America and South America after the end of slavery, in order to bolster the workforce on the plantations. Immigration came in waves, and comprised of Indians, Chinese, Southeast Asians and Japanese.
A significant wave of migration of Chinese laborers to North America also came in 1848 with the discovery of gold in California. As a result of these migrations, increasingly large Asian communities developed in the Americas and naturally, with this came the importation of Asian culture.
During this period, most Asian communities kept to themselves, and traditions such as martial arts were not readily shared with other ethnic groups who were deemed outsiders. However as time passed, communities became less exclusive, and martial arts teachers slowly accepted students of different races and cultures.
Eastern Tradition vs. Western Tradition in Martial Arts
It is not my intention to write a history book, and to readers whose eyelids felt heavy while struggling through my summary of historical events, I apologize. My intention is only to drive home the fact that many of the martial arts from the orient that we refer to as “traditional martial arts” evolved from older practices into what we know them to be today, and subsequently spread to the rest of the world only during the last two centuries. The purpose of summarizing these historical events was also to point out that the development of these east Asian disciplines was affected by the political and social changes within their respective regions of origin.
So why is it that many people associate the words traditional and/or classical martial arts solely with the martial arts of East Asian origin? It is possible that this may be so because many of the martial arts from the orient at some point in history became either syncretized or affiliated with existing religious and philosophical schools of thought which had been prominent in the region for centuries such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, and Islam.
As a result, systems of armed and unarmed combat which were once created for warfare evolved into philosophical arts which advocated refinement from within. Because of this, ethics like martial virtue (Wude) became integral parts of martial arts training, and traditions such as students adhering to different forms of dojo etiquette, as well as recognizing and having respect for the linage of schools, all reflect how these predominant philosophies shaped the social and cultural practices in countries of the far east.
In contrast, the traditional martial arts of Europe did not evolve into disciplines which revolved entirely around intrinsic philosophy and spirituality like those of the far east. While religion did impact the values in society, and codes of conduct such as chivalry had existed since the middle ages, martial arts in western society seemed to have always been regarded as mere pragmatic tools for warfare as well as combat sports, and kept separate from theoretical studies such as philosophy and esotericism.
WHAT ARE MODERN MARTIAL ARTS?
Forms of folk wrestling, boxing, melee and ranged weapon combat were common practices in many cultures of the ancient world. Over the centuries, some of these practices gradually became codified and systematized, and evolved into the modern standards of combat sport contests. Freestyle and Greco – Roman wrestling, amateur and professional boxing, fencing and archery are among the modern disciplines rooted in the ancient past.
The Rise in Popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
In the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century, mixed martial arts came into prominence. The sport began as what seemed to be a no holds barred contest among different forms of martial arts, and for many it was the ideal testing ground for the effectiveness of their preferred styles of fighting.
As the sport evolved, more regulations were put in place, and as a result fighters seemed to gradually use more standardized methods when competing. With the evolution of MMA, organizations such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and ONE Championship (formerly ONE FC) established themselves as global brands while promoting the sport.
To many, mixed martial arts (MMA) is the most complete and effective form of barehanded competative fighting to date as it incorporates striking, throws and ground fighting. Mixed martial artists are considered to be among the most well-rounded and well conditioned athletes, because they undergo grueling yet scientific training programs in order to be at peak mental and physical condition.
MMA has fast become the representative of modern martial arts, and a clear example of the amalgamation and resulting evolution of various unarmed methods of combat. Yet despite this concept, history tells the tale that combat sports which included striking and wrestling, as well as submission locks on the ground, can be traced as far back as ancient Greece and perhaps even other cultures in antiquity.
The rediscovery and revival of ancient combat sports with similar methods such as Pankration from Greece are evidence that modern martial arts are not entirely new inventions, but built upon traditional methods of combat which date back to bygone eras in the history of human civilization.
Military Hand-To-Hand Combat
Modern martial arts may also refer to methods of armed and unarmed combat created to be utilized in modern warfare. Many unarmed systems of self defense exist for the purpose of close quarters combat, and are learned by members of the armed forces of various countries.
Some notable systems of hand-to-hand combat designed for military use are Krav Maga ( used by Israeli Defense Forces), Junshi Sanda (used by The People’s Liberation Army in China), and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (used by the United States Marine Corps). These fighting arts are all part of the modern military training structure alongside other essential programs such as weapons training and combat tactics.
DIVISION BETWEEN TRADITIONAL AND MODERN MARTIAL ARTS
The common argument from those who advocate MMA’s superiority over the traditional arts is that the latter are impractical, ineffective and wholly and solely a waste of time. Examples such as videos on social media of traditional martial artists loosing convincingly to trained combat athletes are usually cited as evidence to support the ineffectiveness of the traditional arts.
The Influence of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu
Before the explosion of UFC and other MMA promotions, the Gracie family of Brazil had been challenging practitioners of different styles of martial arts from as far back as the 1920s in order to showcase the effectiveness of their brand of Jiu-Jitsu. In the early 1900s members of the Gracie family studied Judo under Mitsuyo Maeda who was himself a student of the founder of Judo, Kanō Jigorōi. Eventually the Gracies placed more focus on ground fighting aspect of the martial art and over the years, the martial art practiced by the family evolved into a separate discipline and combat sport by diverging from the rules of Kodokan Judo (the original school in Japan).
Most of the challenges issued by the Gracies ended with wins for members of the family and as a result Gracie Jiu-jitsu gradually gained popularity. During the early UFC competitions, Royce Gracie gained convincing victories over other fighters and won three out of the first five tournaments.
These victories solidified the reputation of Gracie jiu-jutsu as an effective martial art and gained the discipline international prominence. To many MMA enthusiasts, the dominance of Gracie jiu-jitsu in competition solidified the belief that when it comes to practical application, some styles of martial arts are simply superior, whereas others simply do not work.
Holding Steadfast to Tradition
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who loyally defend traditional martial arts, and argue that while combat sports may be effective in the ring, most of the traditional arts are not designed for competition but are tools for defending one’s self in more realistic situations such as being accosted and attacked in a public place. Some may go as far as claiming that the techniques utilized in their system are too dangerous for competition and that attempting to compete within the rules of a sport would be a hindrance.
There are also traditional martial artists who would humbly acknowledge that combat sports such as boxing, amateur wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA do create superior fighters. Some of these traditional martial artists may also reveal that fighting is but a small part of their practice, and that the greater focus is personal cultivation.
MY OPINION ON MMA VS TMA
Learning the Hard Way
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by martial arts films. The genre sparked the interest of most young people at that time. During my early years at elementary school, I remember being one of many who would engage in play fighting throughout lunch break. Punches and kicks, fantastic Kung fu poses, and sound effects mimicking those of Shaw brothers films which aired on TV every Sunday were all part of the fun on the playground.
As I got older, the enthusiasm remained and I was eventually fortunate to be able to join a Karate club, which at the time I associated with these fantastic styles that I once only saw on TV (To the young and uneducated, all Asian martial arts are the same thing.) For a long time I lived in a world where it seemed that learning martial arts such as Karate, Taekwondo, and Kung Fu made a person invincible.
When I grew up and the world changed. Coincidentally I came of age during the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts and it was around this time that I became exposed to negative opinions of the styles of traditional martial arts which I thought very highly of. Like many other traditional martial arts enthusiasts, I was first on the defensive. My arsenal of arguments contained everything from “My art is too dangerous for the ring” to “Mixed martial arts only works in one on one situations, whereas I am trained to fight multiple opponents.”
My delusions came crashing down when I began casually sparring with young aspiring mixed martial artists and loosing badly. Most of these aspiring MMA athletes were not very experienced, but had gained knowledge of some fundamentals of striking and grappling, and at the time were very consistent with their training. I, on the other hand had been casually training stand up fighting for years, and my experience was mostly in the point sparring style of full contact martial arts.
After constantly being taken to the ground and dominated by various members of this amature MMA group, I began to wonder whether I had wasted years of learning a method of fighting that was useless. Eventually I decided not to wallow in self-doubt and be humble enough to accept the fact that I still had a lot to learn, and that if I were to stand a chance against a person well versed in striking, stand up grappling, and ground fighting, then I too would have to effectively study these disciplines. This was the beginning of my change in perception of martial arts.
My Current Viewpoint on This Polarizing Issue
Today, my opinion on the subject of Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) vs Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), as well as other forms of “modern martial arts” is that the division is superficial and unnecessary. I think that some forms of classical martial arts which exist today were created to suit specific purposes during specific periods in history and to compare them with other modern systems of fighting is nothing short of absurd.
The Wing Chun vs MMA Travesty
An example of a classical martial art often wrongly pitted against other arts created specifically for the ring is Wing Chun. Cinema and awareness of iconic figures such as Bruce Lee and Ip man have contributed to the popularity of Wing Chun over the years, and because of this there are fighters who have attempted to use classical Wing Chun in mixed martial arts and other public freestyle fights in order to showcase the effectiveness of the martial art. To my knowledge not many have met success in doing so.
A quick look at the history of Wing Chun may clarify why it is not a prominent or appropriate martial art in the ring. Aside from much of the lore surrounding the art, Wing Chun was created or rather evolved during a turbulent period in China. At this time the indigenous Han Chinese were invaded and subjugated by Manchurian forces, and by 1644 the last legs of the Ming dynasty were toppled as the invading Emperor Shunzhi, who established the Qing dynasty’s rule over China.
Being foreign invaders, anti-Qing sentiment existed throughout the reign of the Qing dynasty. Ming loyalists who fought to drive out the foreign invaders were aggressively stamped out due to the Manchurian’s being aware that they were an ethnic minority ruling over the Han Chinese majority.
As a result of being heavily persecuted, rebel forces eventually formed secret societies and used various forms of disguise as well as methods of assassination in order to fight the ruling power. One such method seems to have been the Wing Chun system, which displays economical and intelligent methods of intercepting an opponents attack, along with quick and precise straight forward attacks designed to break defenses and damage vital points of the body.
In my opinion, Wing Chun is one of many classical martial arts which were not created for trading punches and grappling for leverage on canvas for five minute rounds, and attempting to utilize pure classical Wing Chun and similar classical martial arts in an MMA octagon is just as ridiculous as having an Olympic fencer or a practitioner of 15th century Ninjutsu fighting strategy and tactics compete against a mixed martial artist in a mixed martial arts fight.
I am not saying that Wing Chun concepts cannot be used in competition. I do think that a well trained and experienced fighter who competes in a combat sport can utilize techniques which others may deem unorthodox within that sport, and make said techniques work for him/her. Doing so usually requires being trained by a very competent teacher, as well as the fighter being open minded while continuously innovating and testing these techniques by going against other fighters.
Despite this possibility, there is no denying that different disciplines exist, and that it is not realistic to lump all of them into the same box, octagon or ring.
The Casual Martial Artist vs The Combat Athlete
I also think that many seem to forget that there is a significant difference between a martial arts hobbyist, and a combat athlete, and that it is quite ok to be either of the two as different people enjoy different things. A serious practitioner who regularly competes in a combat sport such as Wrestling, Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts will more often than not be in peak condition, because his/her ultimate goal is to win fights.
To train in a Dojo, Dojang or Kwoon on a less intense level than an average combat athlete and then have to fight one would only result in the less-conditioned fighter loosing the fight. In order to excel in any sport it is not enough to be a mere dabbler, but rather one should train like an athlete who pushes his/her limits and perhaps even cross trains when necessary.
All this does not mean that Traditional martial arts are useless or do not work. Each has it’s value, yet it is important for practitioners of every martial art to understand their limitations and to know that there is always more to learn. Humility is usually an important part of the learning process in all martial arts, and stressed more so in the traditional martial arts of the orient.
Finally, I think that the topic of martial arts is a more complex topic than most believe it to be, and that there are many factors which determine what works and what does not work in a fight. A fight in a ring is not the same as being accosted by armed men on a dark road where the reality of being outnumbered and having to deal with weapons comes into play, and neither of these scenarios are the same as military combat which not only requires effective hand-to-hand combat training but intelligence, strategy, logistics and effective weapons and weapons training in order to win.