A contentious issue indeed is the issue of how to actually define what is, and what is not, a martial art. However, it’s an important issue to address, if one is intending to write reams of guff about martial arts.
Let’s be clear on several points:
1. The term “martial art” is a European term, deriving from Latin roots. It refers to the “arts of Mars”, that is, the arts of war or battle. (Mars being the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of war, Ares.)
2. In the age in which the term was coined, the word “art” did not necessarily mean an “artistic display” in the way we most commonly understand the term today. It did not (and does not) necessarily refer to abstract aesthetic art, but instead to “skill” or “method which has been learned”. In other words, dance is the art of the dancer, and fighting is the art of the fighter. Cooking is the art of the cook.
In this respect (and in this context), the European term “art” most closely matches the Chinese term “Gung Fu”, which has been translated into English as “skill acquired through work”. In other words, a chef’s cookery is his “gung fu”, just as it would be his “art” in European terms.
So let us not allow confusion between the two senses of the word “art” when discussing combat. Whether something is aesthetically pleasing or not affects its martial value not one iota.
3. The “martial arts” must be a self-contained entity, just like any and every other discipline. A martial art cannot be a dance, and a dance cannot be a martial art. A martial art cannot be cookery, and cookery cannot be a martial art. This is merely a matter of expediency, as one cannot discuss a thing in any sensible way until it has been clearly delineated and separated from other things.
Therefore, if we accept these basic assertions as being true, we can arrive at some tentative conclusions about the meaning of the term “martial art”:
Martial arts must relate directly to combat.
In other words, practices purporting to be martial arts must be directly applicable to combat to qualify. And being a useful training method for building martial attributes doesn’t cut it by itself, otherwise things like… rope-skipping would be deemed a martial art (and we can safely state that it isn’t) simply because it is a good training method FOR martial artists.
And because we are limited organisms and can only fight in so many ways, as Bruce Lee put it:
“[when/if] a human being has three arms and four legs, then we will have a different form of fighting. But basically, we have only two hands and two feet.” – Pierre Berton Show – 9 December 1971
We are limited in what techniques will be effective against another person. If a so-called “martial art” consists of techniques which are simply and basically ineffective against another person, then it is not a martial art by definition.
Sadly this definition excludes the majority of so-called martial arts being taught and learned throughout the world today. Obviously each class is different and is taught differently, obviously each teacher falls at a different point somewhere on the scale of ineffective to effective. But we can say that some martial arts are inherently ineffective for combative application. A very partial list of practices that are commonly called martial arts but are clearly not, follows:
- Aikido and derivative styles
- Karate (except muay-thai and MMA-influenced styles such as Kyokushin and Daido-Juku)
- The vast majority of Chinese Gung-Fu styles, with some notable exceptions, including Wing Chun as taught by Alan Orr and San-Shou kickboxing as demonstrated by fantastic martial artists like Cung Le
- Softer, meditative forms of dance such as Tai Chi Chuan, (which is sometimes touted as a martial art) or Ba gua zhang (8 trigrams boxing)
Bear in mind that I am not stating that a martial artist couldn’t get anything out of these practices that might make them a better martial artist.
I AM stating that practicing these arts in isolation does not make one a martial artist, any more than rope-skipping- if it were one’s only form of training- would make one a martial artist.
I would also contend that any positive qualities one can take from these and similarly non-martial practices… could be gained more quickly and efficiently by practicing something different; namely something more combative in nature.