Is Preserving Traditional Martial Arts A Good Thing?

It is not uncommon to see martial arts adverts to the effect of “authentic such-an-such martial art”, or “we teach traditional such-an-such style, true to the teachings of the 34th Grandmaster of the whatever Shaolin temple”.

There is a certain logic to it. If something has been established to be effective, then by preserving it, theoretically you pass down something that continues to be good! If for example something has been tested on the battlefield (as many traditional arts have) and has been proven to be successful, then on the surface it would appear to make sense to preserve what has been proven to work rather than risk changing it to something that is unproven!

There are of course some flaws to this thinking. Firstly, by preserving an art or method as it stands, you shut yourself of from new knowledge. As things progress and the environment in which you might actually use the art changes, certain methods might become obsolete or surpassed. For example; a method of fighting on a slippery and/or uneven surface might require a very routed stance to prevent slipping and falling over which might be ideal in the countryside. If that trainee then moves to a city with nice flat solid roads everywhere, the same routed stance might not be required so much and therefore be less effective against an opponent trained to be more mobile on solid ground!
Also, centuries ago, if somebody was attacked by a robbers out in the countryside (no CSI back then) both attacker and defender might be more likely to carry weapons and it’d be more likely to be a fight to the death. Nowadays, in most developed countries carrying weapons is illegal (or at least, more controlled) and you are required to use minimum force.

So changes like this should be taken into account when training for self protection, rather than preserving methods that worked in a different location with different legal requirements just because that’s the way it’s always been done!

Another problem is that over the generations, some of the knowledge base is likely to get lost. If Master A teaches Master B and Master B wants to preserve Master A’s methods without changing or modifying it, then Master B has to remember EVERYTHING he is taught. If he forgets any of it, then the knowledge base gets smaller and he can’t supplement with other styles as that would not be preserving Master A’s system. If this happens over a number of generation then the original knowledge base continues to shrink and shrink.

I recall a few decades ago, there was a big argument in the the Wing Chun world. Ip Man had allegedly taught 2 of his students differently. These 2 men went on to found their own Wing Chun associations. Later a row broke out between members of the 2 associations with each group claiming that their master had been taught the original Wing Chun and the other master had been taught modified Wing Chun. Both groups saw their method as being more valuable as it was (in their minds at least) the original version rather than a modified version.

Calmer heads suggested that Ip Man taught his 2 students differently as they had different body types and physiques.

Either way, I couldn’t help joking at the time, that I’d rather do the modified version, as the modifications had probably improved it. The big irony is that if people hadn’t constantly made modifications over the years, decades and centuries, then Wing Chun and many other styles simply wouldn’t exist today and such arguments would be a mute point.

An even bigger irony here is that the very idea of preserving a traditional martial art, was never the traditional approach to training; at least, not in China or Okinawa! The reason why there are literally thousands of styles of Kung Fu today is because people did not preserve their style. If they learnt different styles from different masters, they’d naturally combine them, add whatever suited their particular physique/environment and create their own style.

It was the same in Okinawa. After Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate to Japan, he was disappointed on learning that they had named the style of Shotokan after him (he used the pen name of Shoto). He said that Karate should be a living breathing thing always adjusting and adapting to its environment and new knowledge.

The Japanese however have a different approach as they want to know what somebody’s lineage is and it can be hard to be taken seriously without it. And lineage can relate to style. It was this requirement of the Japanese which lead the Okinawans to artificially create the styles of Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te; based around the 3 main cities on Okinawa (Shuri, Naha and Tomari). These names for styles did not really exist before Karate was taken to Japan.

So why is there such an emphasis on styles today? Well firstly it’s always been part of the Japanese mindset. It seems to be something that the Koreans got from them too from the Japanese occupation. But also, it gives a marketable product! Think about that for a minute. If we just take say Karate for example; if they all said that Karate was just Karate and it was a living, growing, adapting thing, then you why should people stay with your group/style/association? By emphasising your style, then people wanting to progress must do it your way and stay with you. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, it was not uncommon for teachers to ban their students from training with other martial arts and criticism (and general slagging off) between different styles was very common.

The Japanese and Koreans were more organised at first about setting up large schools and organisations all over the world. The Chinese caught on a bit a later and were a bit more splintered as they had so very many different styles. So again going back to “the true to the teachings of the 34th Grandmaster of the whatever Shaolin temple”, this infers a superior product that you must stay within the club/association in order to learn properly. So it’s largely about marketing!

Now styles do have some advantages, in that if I were to move anywhere in the world, I could probably find a Shotokan Karate club and be familiar with with the basics, the kata and everything else. If was to take up Goju Ryu for example, then I’d have to start with different stances and different kata all over again. Now I’ve got nothing against learning other styles and have dabbled with several others in my time. But having styles gives me an idea before hand what direction my training would be going in. That said, I don’t think that we should limit ourselves and if we learn something from another style that is better than or complimentary to what we’re already doing, we shouldn’t be afraid to adapt our training and incorporate it.

Some of the foremost thought leaders in Karate such as Iain Abernethy and Jesse Enkamp will tell you that they don’t even know what style they are today as they’ve had so many influences from different sources and that’s fine as that is the real traditional way. Personally, I tend to say that I’m “Shotokan based”, as I have acknowledge a number of non-Shotokan influences (from both other Karate styles and other martial arts altogether), yet my basics and kata are still from Shotokan. So by all means have styles as a general guide to what you do/teach, but don’t be afraid to incorporate knowledge from elsewhere so that you grow and improve.



Multiply your effectiveness with more impact for less effort and where to hit for best effect.

Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas




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