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What is a Martial Art?


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Originally I was going to write a piece called "What is Tai Chi Chuan" but the more I thought about it the more I realised that what applies to TCC, in this regard, applies to just about any martial art.

So what do we mean by a martial art? At it's most basic, I suppose, we could say that it's: any martial practice which gives the practitioner an advantage in a combat situation.

A nice example of a simple martial art might be archery. Obviously the weapon itself gives the wielder an advantage over an unarmed fighter - or someone using a short range weapon, when the bow is used at a distance - but we could say that the martial art of archery consists of those techniques which enhance the use of the weapon.

By simple I do not wish to imply easy! Archery, our example, is by no means easy to master and a lifetime could be devoted to achieving mastery of the art but it is simple in the sense that it involves one weapon with a limited set of objectives.

Accuracy at different ranges may be important but so to may be the speed with which the weapon can be deployed and the rate-of-fire. The greater the 'weight' of the bow the greater the penetration and/or range of the arrow, so training to be able to wield more powerful bows might be important too.

For something to qualify as a martial art it needs to be more than just a collection of techniques. Otherwise all we have is a disconnected bundle of physical movements which, while they may offer some advantage individually, cannot be used together meaningfully. A martial art should be greater than the sum of its parts.

If we look carefully at any martial art we can see certain aspects on which the art depends. These can be separated, broadly, into Principles, Strategies and Techniques. To be useful any martial art needs all three.

I am not qualified to discuss the principles which relate to archery but, to a limited extent, I have some knowledge of the strategies and techniques used in one or two styles of archery.

If we take medieval long-bow technique, for example, we see an art which is primarily about accuracy at a distance. Whether that is laying down volley after volley of arrows at extreme range, usually with many archers taking part, or sniping, with the bow, as may be required during a siege. Rate-of-fire is of less importance, particularly with laying down volleys where archers would fire on-command. Though rate-of-fire is still a consideration.

Contrasting this we could cite the Hsing-I strategy of laying down covering fire as the ranks advance. For those unfamiliar with this practice a short description may be in order. The front rank, equipped with a short but powerful compound-bow, would hold a pre-determined number of arrows in the hand which also holds the bow - typically 3, 5 or 7, more than 7 arrows starts to become unwieldy. At a certain point in the advance the front rank would begin to fire into the massed ranks of the enemy - one arrow on each forward step until all arrows are spent. What is required here is power and a fast, and steady, rate-of-fire, while accuracy is of less importance. With an army as the target missing everyone would be quite difficult.

These two styles require distinct and diverse strategies and it is a combination of an art's Principles and Strategies which gives rise to Technique. Obviously the technique used by medieval long-bowmen would not be suited to Hsing-I archery, when used to cover an advance, and the technique used by Hsing-I archers when advancing would be less effective during a medieval siege.

For instance: Long-Bowmen used two fingers to pull the bow-string and would devote a good proportion of time to aiming the weapon when sniping during a siege, using arrows with three flights for stability. Advancing Hsing-I archers would favour a single digit release, using the thumb with a Jade thumb ring, and arrows with just two flights - so that it didn't matter which way round the arrow was as it was knocked to the bow-string and because the arrow didn't need to be so stable over the shorter distances involved.

If we look at an art such as Western Boxing we still see Principles, Strategies and Techniques. A Boxing maxim is that: "the art of Boxing is to hit the other guy without being hit". This may not always be possible but it can be seen as the objective of the art.

To try to achieve its objective Western Boxing adheres to certain principles. We could say that they are: evasion, speed, power and accuracy. This gives rise to strategies, like the holding jab, dominating the centre of the ring, 'dancing' around the opponent, feinting to draw the opponent out and more besides.

Technique is underpinned by these Principles and Strategies, though this may not always be a conscious development. Indeed; many arts have, almost certainly, developed out of techniques which proved effective. Nevertheless; as the art develops so do principles and strategies, even if this is not a conscious process, as these are the glue which hold the art together and make it more than just a collection of random techniques.

Any martial art, worthy of the term, is structured in this way. The east Asian fighting traditions differ from their western counterparts, primarily, because this has been understood and the arts developed 'consciously' in line with the principles and strategies on which they rely in an overt and explicit way.

When we look at the most subtle and complex arts, such as Hsing-I, Tai Chi Chuan, I-Chuan etc. The principles which govern the arts are very profound and sophisticated, the strategies ingenious and highly developed but, essentially, what makes them martial arts is no different to what makes simple arts martial arts:

  1. They are based on a principle, or principles.
  2. They have developed strategies which allow the principles to be enacted.
  3. They employ techniques which follow the principles and strategies of the art.

Any system which simply collects techniques from disparate disciplines and teaches them in isolation - no matter how effective individual fighters may be at making some of these techniques work - cannot, honestly, be called a martial art. Though it may work for certain individuals; it will not long endure nor add to the sum of martial arts knowledge.

Sifu R Rand

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