The definition of what a martial art is has been debated somewhat and I have made mention of the concept in previous articles in this blog. The following article is designed to examine this concept a little more closely using a definition taken from one source and then examining various elements from what is considered a martial art. It is hoped that the main points of examination presented will give places where practitioners can examine their own practice to see how their own practice compares to these points.
Previous ArticlesThe previous articles which I will refer to which I have written are: "Martial Art vs Martial Sport" (https://afencersramblings.blogspot.com/2014/02/martial-art-versus-martial-sport.html) in which comparisons are made between martial arts and those which have been directed toward more sport applications, thus moving away from their martial backgrounds; and "Are You Teaching a System?" (https://afencersramblings.blogspot.com/2016/05/are-you-using-or-teaching-system.html) in which it is asked whether the teacher is teaching their students a system of techniques, or merely a series of "tips and tricks" which have less foundation in fencing principles found in martial arts systems. Each of these articles addresses the concept of martial arts from a different perspective but add to the following discussion, and will be referred to in the discussion.
A DefinitionThe Wikipedia gives the following definition of martial arts:
Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practiced for a number of reasons such as self-defense; military and law enforcement applications; competition; physical, mental and spiritual development; and entertainment or the preservation of a nation's intangible cultural heritage.
Although the term martial art has become associated with the fighting arts of East Asia, it originally referred to the combat systems of Europe as early as the 1550s. The term is derived from Latin and means "arts of Mars", the Roman god of war. Some authors have argued that fighting arts or fighting systems would be more appropriate on the basis that many martial arts were never "martial" in the sense of being used or created by professional warriors. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martial_arts)From the simplest point of view, martial arts can be defined by the first paragraph, as supplied by the Wikipedia, above. However, the following paragraph adds an increased completeness to the definition of the term allowing for a broader perspective of the subject. There are some important elements which arise from this definition: codified systems and traditions; combat practiced for a number of reasons; association with fighting arts of East Asia; and from Latin "arts of Mars". Each of these need to be discussed to see how they apply to various arts.
East Asian FocusWhen the term "martial arts" is used most lay-people think of those arts practiced by those of the Orient. This is often due to the martial arts movies of the 1970s and 1980s which popularised martial arts and presented them in such a fashion that they were found to be interesting. The result if this was that there was a boom period of various Oriental martial arts schools, which continues today. The media has focused the attention of the public toward the Orient with regard to the term "martial arts". The long lineages of many of these Oriental martial arts only furthers to cement these ideas.
In comparison, Western Martial Arts (WMA) or Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is relatively new and relatively unknown in comparison. Interest in these forms only is created through the media when popularise films and series come out. Schools and clubs supplying this form of fighting style are relatively new and few in number in comparison to Oriental martial arts.
The Arts of MarsThat the term "martial arts" is an Occidental (Western) one based on the Latin and is applied to Oriental and Occidental arts simultaneously is most interesting and demonstrates common ground between these two physical forms. Here, it is commonality which can be found rather than difference. Even more interesting is that it originally referred more to the Occidental arts of the Renaissance rather than those of the Orient is most interesting.
The same theories which apply to Occidental fighting forms can also be applied, and should, to Oriental fighting forms. The discussion which is presented here to discuss martial arts is not only to discuss Occidental fighting forms, though it tends to be my focus, but to discuss all forms and can apply the same criteria to them. This is only possible due to the commonality and the same levels of expectation of them.
The evaluation of a fighting art can, as such, be evaluated using the same criteria regardless of whether it is Oriental or Occidental as they should both carry the same characteristics to qualify as a martial art. To evaluate one by one set of criteria and the other by another has no justification as there is a commonality between them which has been presented previously in their common label. What will be found is that some of the assumptions made of both Occidental and Oriental fighting arts are not necessarily true.
Codified SystemsTo be a martial art the fighting art must have a codified system. This is most likely based on a long tradition of the fighting art, but in the case of many Occidental arts, they are being rediscovered so the tradition is not present. The tradition is preferable as it establishes the system, but this can also be abused. Some of this was discussed in the article "Are You Teaching a System?" The essential part is a codified system.
The fighting art's system needs defined theory which can be explained by its instructors to the students to demonstrate how this theory applies to the physical practice. There must be this link between the theory and practice; the goal for any martial artist should be to make the theory and practice to become one, thus the science and the art of fencing, for example to become one. While theory may not be explained to beginner students it must underlie each technique and technical sequence which is taught.
Further, to be a martial art, it needs to be a complete system. A complete system means that an experienced practitioner of that particular art can deal with any attack at any distance, and thus, not be limited by type of attack or distance at which the attack is made, also the practitioner should respond in kind to such attacks. Those fighting arts which limit themselves to a particular distance, and do not take into account other distances are not complete systems. Further, an art which is limited by the attack which it delivers can defend against is not a complete system. Clearly, there is some limitation when it comes to projectile weapons.
A martial art has combat application. This means that the practitioner could use the art that they are being taught to defend their life. If they were put into an antagonistic scenario, they could defend themselves and do sufficient damage to an opponent to end an encounter successfully. Here is where the question of its "martial" application is applied. There will be further discussion of this aspect further along. While this may not be the primary purpose of the art, this must be present.
Transmission of the fighting art is from teacher to student. The teacher teaches the lessons and the student learns the lessons. The person who teaches the student may not be the head teacher of the organisation, but they have been selected because they have the knowledge to teach the student the lesson they are being taught.
Reasons for PracticeThe Wikipedia definition lists various reasons for the practice of martial arts: "self-defense; military and law enforcement applications; competition; physical, mental and spiritual development; and entertainment or the preservation of a nation's intangible cultural heritage". Each of these will have a different impact on how the fighting art is practiced, and this needs to be noted.
The different reason for practicing the fighting art will affect how the martial art is practiced and also affect its final outcome. A martial art which is practiced for the purpose of self-defense, will have a different outcome to a martial art which is practiced for the purpose of competition. This was discussed in the article "Martial Art vs Martial Sport". The focus and the application of the skills will be different. This will change again if it is for personal development or for the preservation of cultural heritage. Each choice of direction affects how the end result will turn out.
Each choice of direction can also have an effect and change the nature of the fighting art. While the sportification of some martial arts has allowed them to become more mainstream it has also lead to the degradation in many of their principles, and even in their codified systems. They have become focused on the sport rather than the martial art, focused on what rules conventions determine competitions or tournaments rather than the origins of the martial arts. This has led them away from their original content.
Further, some arts, due to their nature, cannot be practiced as they once were, due to modern society's safety requirements, so the systems have been truncated. Often these techniques are not even examined to see how they work, they are simply not allowed. This denies avenues of understanding of the fighting art and can lead to reduction in understanding of the overall art. The complete system still needs to be examined, even if it is not used, so it can be understood and appreciated for the art it is.
Martial Art or Not?In the examination of any claim by a fighting art to be a martial art, a close examination is required. The system that is presented needs to be examined for various points of validity as a martial art. A complete codified system is the most important element that is required. This needs to be presented with established theory which can be presented by instructors and demonstrated as relevant during the training. There needs some sort of application of this system to a "real world" situation where the art would be effective, based upon the system and theories which are presented. Further, it needs to be demonstrated that the transmission of the information is from teacher to student as this connection is essential for correction of technique and to ensure that the information is passed on correctly.
The list is quite long, and quite impressive and there are many fighting arts, which call themselves martial arts, which really do not stack up. There are many fighting arts which are present which are simply fighting arts and they should be appreciated for what they are. They should be noted both for their achievements and also their failings. We should also note that the sportification of a martial art can force it away from its origins too far and result in it no longer being a martial art. Then only suitable for sporting purposes. It is not meant to denigrate any fighting art or practice which any participant partakes in, more to ensure that the relevant questions are asked, so the relevant information is sought and found.