Without Writing

The art of writing without writing… about fighting.

Definition of the term “Martial Art”

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.


6 responses to “Definition of the term “Martial Art”

  1. Accidental Aikidoist 2010, July 12 at 8:01 am

    What is your experience/training in martial arts? Our understanding and view on things are highly dependent on your personal experiences (good and bad) so I am curious as to how you arrived at your definition of ‘martial arts’.

    Especially with the list of arts that you deemed “not” martial arts.

    • withoutwriting 2010, July 12 at 9:32 am

      This is a valid question. My experience currently stands at seventeen years of training in genuine martial arts, and also in many of the practices listed above as “non-martial arts”.

      My experiences were broadly positive across the board, except for the obvious: that as a young man looking to study the combative arts, I was routinely being sold an esoteric dance-class, packaged as the real thing.

      Sometimes, being young and foolish, (as opposed to old and foolish, as I am now,) I was taken in by these claims. In essence, I was- like many- conned out of my hard-earned dough.

      Secondly, and very sadly, I had occasion to learn that some of the training I was engaging in simply cannot be applied to the real world, at some personal cost. (Fortunately, not too high a cost.)

      These were my negative experiences with pseudo-martial arts.

      For me, this issue is central to any discussion of martial arts. Combat is a very serious thing. Extremely serious. The subject of combat encompasses issues not merely of technical effectiveness, but also of legal ramifications of violence, psychological effects of both winning and losing a real fight, and there is nothing that angers me more than some irresponsible Sensei teaching a genuinely dangerous technique without any reference to self-defence laws or psychological consequences. But what angers me only slightly less is some irresponsible sensei teaching a useless technique… or SET of useless techniques, and convincing their followers that these will be effective in a dangerous situation.

      The first type of lie puts others in danger. The second puts oneself in danger.

      As for why I picked the practices that are on the “non-martial-arts” list above, well, I think a cursory glance at youtube will convince any pragmatic observer that the arts in question have little or nothing to do with the rough, chaotic environment of an actual fight, and therefore cannot qualify as “martial”.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Accidental Aikidoist 2010, July 12 at 6:03 pm

        …so what are the “genuine martial arts” and the “non-martial arts” that you have practiced in the past 17 years?

      • withoutwriting 2010, July 13 at 4:04 pm

        Again, a valid question, and one I might address in greater depth in a future blog entry, however here’s a truncated list:

        Those martial arts that I have practiced (and still do practice) that I would consider immediately applicable to combat include: Boxing, Freestyle, Greco and Catch Wrestling, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai.

        I practiced Wing Chun for a long time. Sadly my teacher was not really interested in combat application so much as “going through the motions”, so only now after an extended period of time learning other martial arts can I see how some of the techniques contained in Wing Chun could be useful for certain clinch positions. I have now started using a sizeable chunk of what I would call Wing Chun technique in my sparring, but frankly I’m not sure it was worth the time and effort I put in to learn it.

        I am fairly well versed in so-called RBSD, or reality-based self-defence training. I have trained with many of the major figures in RBSD in my home country, and abroad. This can be extremely useful training, in my opinion, but it depends on the teacher.

        I also spent some time training at a Kyokushin dojo, and was mightily impressed with the level of controlled aggression and physical conditioning of my fellow participants. However, I consider the lack of punches to the head to be a fatal flaw in the training regime, and I consider the Kihon to be a decent cardio and isometric workout, but not much use beyond that.

        Lastly, I dabbled in many many “martial arts” that I wouldn’t consider worthy of the term. I happened upon many forms of Gung fu and Karate that were literally ridiculous. I dabbled in more modern forms like Bujinkan Taijutsu and Krav Maga. Locking/throwing forms like Chin-na and Aikijutsu. Weapon forms such as Okinawan Bojutsu and Japanese Iaijutsu. I’m afraid to say that all of these were quite useless. And objectively so.

        In addition I attended innumerable seminars and expos over the years, and have had opportunities to see a great number of other martial artists in action, in the flesh. I’ve trained not only in my own country (the UK), but have travelled to train in the US and Europe.

        I think you’ll agree, I’ve amassed enough experience to offer a qualified opinion on the effectiveness of combative arts in general. All that remains is the question: Is my reasoning valid, or is it not?

  2. Accidental Aikidoist 2010, July 14 at 8:02 pm

    I have a feeling that you suffer from the lack of good instructors in the martial arts that you deem “non martial arts”. This is a great malaise…one that can influence someone’s perception greater than the art itself.

    I have 4 years of Chinese Kung Fu until my belt – however the instructor (I would later find out) had questionable ethnics and teaching material so I left. That has not changed my view on Kung Fu – quite the contrary I realize now what was missing and all I need is a reliable and competent instructor.

    Your points are valid – no one is saying they aren’t. However I feel that they somewhat incomplete, because of the fact that I believe you have had the misfortune of bad teachers in these “non-martial arts”. Don’t let a teacher’s skill and persona cloud your perception of an art, no matter how “martial” it is.

    • withoutwriting 2010, July 14 at 8:22 pm

      Oh goodness me no. My opinion of the art in your user-name, and other arts discussed above, has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of instruction available within those arts. It is to do with the mechanical efficiency of the arts in question.

      For instance: Complex and mechanically dubious wrist and arm locks relying on compliant partners for their effectiveness… partners who- in training- fling themselves in the direction their training partner wishes them to go, are simply, and obviously, not going to be effective against a resisting and committed attacker.

      If these techniques were effective at all, you can be sure that they would be used by professionals and amateurs in the field of competition fighting, or professionals in the field of close-protection/door work. These fields demand techniques that work, and are full of martial artists who don’t CARE where a technique comes from, as long as it works. They would be happy to adopt such techniques, and have no axe to grind.

      There are certain stock responses I’m used to receiving from those who practice the arts listed above. I’m afraid you’ve fallen into the trap of giving me one of those stock responses, namely: “All your teachers must have been sub-standard, or you wouldn’t think that these arts are ineffective.”

      As for your faith in Kung Fu… sorry, but that’s a logically fallacious position. You clearly already believe that Kung Fu will work for you if you only find the right teacher… But if you’ll pardon me, I believe that one should make conclusions based on evidence, rather than making an arbitrary conclusion and then trying to FIND evidence to support it.

      Thanks again for your polite and constructive comments, and I hope you don’t take the contentious nature of my assertions personally.

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