Friday, August 03, 2007

American Martial Arts

A good many blogs in the Convocation or on the Toplist talk about a particular martial art that has a "classical" name, yet when you start to read the posts the author seems to be anything but "classical". For the sake of example, by "classical" I mean a school that's traditional or super-traditional in the classic Japanese dojo sense. So often when I read the posts I get a little disconcerted because what I think should be a purest approach is usually not.

Well as fate would have it, before being invited to be a guest poster here on TDA Training I also just happened to be re-reading Beasley's Mastering Karate. Mr. Beasely is a multiple dan holder in several martial arts, heads up the now-famous Karate College each year and also is a scholar. Anyhow, as I re-read Beasely's book I think I stumbled upon a partial explanation for my discomfort. Beasely talks a lot about how he defines "American Karate". He also uses this term to broadly describe arts that may not be your typical stand-up fighting art (e.g. judo, jujitsu, etc.). Beasely writes:
"Modern karate represents a mixing of skills and practice methods; thus, it often is referred to as eclectic, nonclassical, freestyle, or independent American karate. Moreover, many of the traditional styles have been "Americanized" or updated to include modern kickboxing, weapons, and grappling skills." (Beasley, p. 20)
Beasley goes on to say that most American styles claim lineage with one or more Asian disciplines; however, "American Karate" is an American interpretation of another cultures' art. In a similar vein, Japanese Karate is an interpretation of Chinese arts so I guess it should not surprise me that the martial arts continue to evolve. Beasley then chronicles the history of how American Karate (or should I say American Martial Arts?) has evolved:
-Traditional era (1956-1966): Pretty much the same as traditional Asian arts
-Progressive era (1967-1972): Styles start to mix
-Contact era (1973-1980): Innovations in safety equipment led to partial or full-contact fighting
-International era (1981-1992): Open acceptance of multi-cultural martial arts
-Reality era (1993-2000): UFC-style fighting that blends striking and grappling
-Contemporary era (2001 - present): Americans renew interest in karate's original intent of self-defense.
(Beasely, p. 21)
Interestingly, Beasely blends the philosophies of Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate) and Bruce Lee (the founder of Jeet Kune Do) to come up with a middle way. According to the author Funakoshi was more concerned with perfecting one's character through a regimented and very traditional process that was heavy on "character building". Thus, a technique may not have to always be technically valid if the martial artist perfects his or her character; and, for example, walks away from a fight. On the other hand, Lee pretty much gave up on tradition because it was too restrictive for his self-expression. He was more concerned with developing his own personal philosophy that eventually became a martial art. Regardless, if you really think about it both messages still have value.

For Beasley there is no "one best way." Whether he realizes it or not, I think Beasley is warning both traditionalists and those who dismiss traditional martial arts in favor of UFC-style or "reality-based" systems. Here Beasley cautions about how traditions can create dogmas:
"The way the founder chooses is the 'right' way...over time, the right way becomes the only accepted way. The technique moves from a good idea to a tradition not to be changed." (Beasely, p.46)
In the case of the traditionalist, those UFC-types have committed the unthinkable: they deviated from tradition! Yet for the UFC-types many of the classical techniques allegedly have no place in "modern fighting". The irony is that some UFC-types have created their own "tradition", complete with their own dogma. In other words, their dogma says that classical arts have no self-defense value and totally dismiss them outright.

Beasely nails it when talks about punching. He notes that under the right circumstances a classical "chambered" strike can break boards, bricks, and bone. So those that have not experimented with classical techniques are limiting their response. Similarly faster and modern non-chambered jabs, crosses, and hooks can pummel a person into unconsciousness, and almost always beat a classical strike to the target. So, again, the classical artist may be incomplete if he or she is lacking these skills.

I've trained in "Americanized" versions of Wing Chun and now Taekwondo so Beasely book really resonates with me. I think the first time I thought about this conundrum was when I tried to spar against my sabum using boxing strikes and wing chun kicks and blocks. Sabum's superior kicking and footwork shut me down. After that he would often say "If you can kick high you can kick low". Broadening his message to sum up this very long post I'd have to say this to all the martial artists who read this: It's good to keep an open mind because each martial art has value.


1 comment:

John Vesia said...

These are interesting times we're seeing today in the martial arts. Some heavy lines are being drawn between the traditional stylists and the progressive MMA camp. It's very true that in some cases, each have become so rigidly dogmatic that they're almost like religious fundamentalists, each thinking that their way is superior.